LENOX — Since opening nearly 30 years ago, Tanglewood’s elegant Seiji Ozawa Hall has hosted world-renowned performers, from Yo-Yo Ma to Stephanie Blythe. Berkshire Lyric Chorus will create a mighty sound at the venerated venue on June 4 when it celebrates 60 years of music making with Brahms monumental seven-movement “German Requiem,” performed by 95 voices and a 60-piece professional orchestra.
Jack Brown, Berkshire Lyric director since 2007, will lead this musical multitude. The singer, educator and conductor succeeded Robert Blafield, who founded Berkshire Lyric Theatre in 1963 and presented musicals, opera, oratorios and concerts. It now includes five choruses of different sizes and ages from children to adults, performing some 15 concerts each year, plus youth music education programs.
“From 1996, I was Bob’s go-to bass soloist for 10 years,” Brown said. “I really admired how he ran [the chorus], he had a sense of humor and very high standards, and enjoyed working with young people. I fit in culturally with what he had been doing and expanded it, and now it’s the strongest it’s ever been.
“One of the reasons we’re doing the Brahms Requiem is because we can. It’s very demanding for a community chorus, they’re on their feet for 75 minutes, and sing just about all the time. Two movements have a baritone soloist, and there’s an extremely beautiful solo for soprano.”
Baritone Woodrow Bynum, who previously performed Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Haydn’s “Creation” with Berkshire Lyric, is also director of music and choirmaster at The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, N.Y.
Grammy Award-winning soprano Sarah Brailey makes her Berkshire Lyric debut. Currently she is touring Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story” with Lorelei Ensemble and orchestras including Boston, Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, performing the program in Ozawa Hall July 28.
“She’s got a big, gleaming soprano voice that can do these long lines over the top of an orchestra,” Brown said, “Her seven-minute solo is an emotional highlight.”
The choral singers hail from all walks of life and include teachers, nurses and lawyers.
“The age range is 16 to 81, with a lot in their 60s,” Brown said. “A couple have sung with us for 45 years.”
A typical concert has between 60 and 80 singers.
“The choir’s a little younger than it’s been, which I’m really proud of,” he said. “We have returning college kids and recent graduates, and high school kids who sang with us as children. Some older folks have a lot of experience, but having people under 30 averages out the sound. The magic of choral singing is different ages, backgrounds and experience levels. Put it together and it’s very good quality. We have a lot of men, it’s going to be a big sound.”
New singers who joined since the pandemic include two who sang the Brahms with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus last summer. They’re very high level, Brown said. Others have sung the piece in New York, Chicago and Boston.
The professional orchestra includes musicians from Albany and Hartford Symphonies and the Berkshires.
Brahms started writing “German Requiem” in 1965 following his mother’s death, and completed it in 1868 at age 34.
“It put him on the map,” Brown said, noting that Brahms' was already considered the future of German music and heir apparent to Beethoven.
Unlike standard Roman Catholic Latin Requiem Masses, Brahms adapted the German language text from the Luther Bible, tracing a journey from grief to solace.
“People had tears in their eyes, and within five years there were 100 performances,” Brown said. “It’s a beautifully written monument to mid-19th century German high Romantic music.”
With more demands on the string section, full brass section and winds, and a harp, the orchestra has a bigger sound than they’re used to, Brown added.
Two short pieces open the program. The instrumental “Lyric Fanfare” for brass and percussion by Composer in Residence Anson Olds was commissioned for the 60th anniversary.
“It’s short, bright and festive, and pays homage to the sound world Brahms was writing,” Brown said.
Olds added, “It’s introspective and somber in the beginning, then more and more triumphant and powerful as the piece progresses.”
Brown’s daughter, Fiona, introduced Olds to Berkshire Lyric. Both sing in the chorus and were recently married.
“I went to Jack with some pieces of my music, and he was impressed and wanted me to keep writing,” Olds said. “I’d studied composition in college, but never really written for chorus until I graduated.” He has written several pieces for Berkshire Lyric, mainly for its summer group, Ubi Caritas, including a Christmas tune based on poems by Sara Teasdale for the chorus.
“Alleluia” by American composer Eric Whitacre “starts very quietly and ends beautifully and peacefully,” Brown said. “He writes accessible a cappella choral music, and is a big name internationally. He wrote this piece about 10 years ago. Hearing a good a cappella chorus in a big hall is kind of bracing.”
The two local soloists are resident vocal artist John Demler, bass, and Lily Lothrop, soprano.
“Lily studied with me when she was 15 and won all the prizes at Smith College,” Brown said. “Now she’s in Troy, N.Y., teaching voice at Emma Willard School.”
Of the many local groups that performed in Ozawa Hall in its early days, Berkshire Lyric is the only one that still does, Brown said. At 1,200 seats, it’s a large hall to fill.
The chorus has performed at Ozawa Hall around Memorial Day for the past 10 years. 1,100 people attended last year’s Mozart “Requiem.”
“People like to get out of the house, it’s the first time back to Ozawa Hall after the long winter. Our audiences are the most local for a classical event there all year long, and the youngest.”
“It’s really remarkable for a small-budget arts group to keep going this long,” Brown added. “People love it and we’ve had generations of singers. We had two teenage girls, their mom and their grandmother at a recent concert singing the Beethoven “Mass” together beautifully.”
IF YOU GO
What: Johannes Brahms: “German Requiem” with 95-voice chorus and 60-piece orchestra. Featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and baritone Woodrow Bynum.
Who: Berkshire Lyric Chorus
Where: Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, 297 West Street, Lenox
When: 3 p.m. June 4
Tickets: $35; free, ages 6 to 18. Children under 6 not admitted. Tickets available online and tat the Ozawa Hall gate.
Information and tickets: berkshirelyric.org