|Ellingboe, center, and his soloists in Budapest.|
Summer brings a flood of foreign performers every year, most of them inspired amateurs thrilled to spend an hour on a Prague stage. Last week more than 200 singers from six American choirs jammed the empora at Obecní dům and had the time of their lives murdering Mozart’s Requiem.
But a very different kind of Requiem is on tap this weekend, courtesy of Brad Ellingboe, a singer, composer, choral conductor and teacher from the United States. He is bringing four soloists, a choir from his school (the University of New Mexico), a Slovak choir and a Hungarian orchestra to perform his largest work – a Requiem that he composed in 2001 and has conducted more than 200 times since, including a performance in the Carnegie Hall “Masterworks” series last year.
It’s no light matter taking on that form, a fact that Ellingboe acknowledged via e-mail from Budapest, where he opened the European tour of his Requiem last week.
“It’s daunting, especially when someone like myself considers those who have gone before me – people like Mozart, Brahms and Verdi,” Ellingboe said. “In no way do I consider my work anywhere near the equivalent of theirs.”
His Requiem emerged from a life-changing experience. “I suffered a sort of dark night of the soul about ten years ago,” he recalls. “All of us who live long enough start to consider what happens after we die. In my case, I was able to do something with this depression and write my way out of it.”
Ellingboe employed the standard Latin Mass text, minus the “Dies Irae,” which is rarely heard at modern funeral Masses. And he added poems by John Donne and George Herbert in line with his spiritual beliefs.
“In the U.S., there are currently two conflicting streams of thought in regard to what happens when we die,” he said. “One says, grandma died and now she is with grandpa in heaven looking down at us. The other, older thought says, when we die we go to sleep and await the Day of Judgment, when there will be a sorting out of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I personally believe in the latter idea, which is the point of those two poems. In a way, they fulfill the liturgical function of the Dies Irae movement.”
Lest all this weigh too heavily, the concert will open with a performance of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. “I am a great lover of Haydn, and this tour takes us to cities that were important in the Austro-Hungarian empire. So I felt it only right that the companion piece should be by Haydn, and the Lord Nelson Mass is a favorite of mine.”
This will be Ellingboe’s first appearance in Prague, and he certainly has his attitude on straight. “I am always aware of Prague’s great musical traditions, and it is not false modest to say that I am humbled to bring a piece of mine to the city that saw premieres by Mozart.”
What the audience takes away from his concert will depend even more than usual on what they bring to it – not just musically, but spiritually. It will be interesting to see what a contemporary composer has done with one of the oldest and most difficult genres in classical music, and in this case, how well Ellingboe’s work conveys his ideas and beliefs.
“I think of my Requiem as me explaining what I think happens after we die to the audience,” he said. “I explained it as clearly and as well as I could, and I hope they find some comfort and joy in hearing the explanation.
“If we can give people some pleasure, or make them think some thoughts they might not otherwise have had, then we will be happy.”