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Ianthe Marini on Brahms' Requiem and 'Seeking an Answer to the Greatest Mystery'

This week, Columbus has the rare opportunity to see Brahms' Requiem performed live in concert. Ianthe Marini, the Paul S. and Jean R. Amos Distinguished Chair for Choral Activities at CSU, will conduct the masterwork featuring the 110-member Choral Union on Tuesday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Legacy Hall.

Marini is in her second year at CSU, where she originally came to serve as interim Choral Director for the 2017-18 academic year. Originally from Boston, Marini has prepared masterworks for major ensembles like the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She's Italian, Greek, chic, and exudes a brilliant passion for her work that is infectious - a quality that impacts her music making to the core.

At The Columbusite, we believe that audience education is key. To better understand an art exhibit, the observer must learn everything they can about the artist. Music is no different. To listen fully, we must understand the process behind the music making. Sure, the compositional elements within the work itself matter. But there has to be more to it than that. Our aim is to introduce you to the philosophy of the artists involved. The materials employed in preparation. And, whenever possible, the heart behind the art itself.

In preparation for this week's concert, we sat down with Marini to discuss her background, why she fell in love with our community, her personal philosophy on music making, and how we can expect to hear it come through in the Brahms' Requiem on Tuesday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let's start at the beginning. How did you find out about Columbus, Georgia?

I was finishing up my Doctorate in Musical Arts at the University of Maryland when I first saw the choral position at Schwob was available. I was still at all but dissertation status, so my degree wasn't technically complete, but I started to apply for jobs anyway. After I finished my dissertation and got word my degree was complete, I sent out follow up emails to all of the places I'd applied. Scott Harris actually called me personally to discuss the position with me. They needed someone who would be able to prepare the chorus for the CSO for Verdi Requiem, and he'd seen on my resume that I'd prepared a number of choirs for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra so he knew that I had that in my wheelhouse. They also wanted someone with a musical theatre background as the theatre department and music department are merging together to begin offering musical theatre training. He saw that I have a musical theatre background, so it seemed like a good fit for me.

I went through the interviewing process and when I came down here, I'd never heard of Columbus, Georgia. I'm a Bostonian. When I got here, I was really taken aback. There is live music every single night all year round?! The riverwalk was amazing to me. The people here were also so friendly.

What I discovered in that inaugural visit to Columbus was that people here are thirsty for culture. They really want it. Having lived in major city areas all of my life, I've found that people can be a little bit jaded. There is so much art happening that it's like, "Oh what's another day at the art gallery?"

Not here. There is so much going on, and yet everyone is so supportive and thirsty for things to happen. So I decided to come here and I just fell in love with the community. I fell in love with the town. My colleagues. And most importantly the students.

Q: What did you like about the students here?

A: The students are so hard working. They are good humored. They don't take themselves too seriously, but they take the work very seriously. What I love most is that they're not so constantly riddled with anxiety about everything. Our students will take an artistic risk. If they make a mistake, they laugh and they learn from it, and then they move on. I absolutely loved that fearlessness in the student body and it made me want to stay.

Q: That's amazing. What else about the cultural environment here made you want to stay?

A: I took a walk around the Bo Bartlett Center in early March with a friend of mine, and he sort of looked at me and said, "You're staying here, right?"

It was actually that walk through the Bo Bartlett Center where I said, "I need to stay in this town because the infrastructure is all in place here. Now, we just get to come and utilize it." So that's really why I stayed, because choir is sort of the easiest thing to bring around. We're very transportable. All we need to do is bring ourselves and sing.

There's that gorgeous amphitheater down by the Riverwalk. There are abandoned mills. There's the Bo Bartlett Center. There's the upstairs of the Riverside Theatre overlooking the gorgeous river view. There's Legacy Hall and Heard Theatre at the RiverCenter.

I mean, there are countless places where we can go and have a really artistic experience. It's a really amazing thing to have so many places like that in a town this size.

Q: It's so refreshing to hear that from a big city person.

A: It's incredible. There's no commute. There's no traffic. And yet, there's everything you could need.

Columbus is a gem, and nobody knows about it. It's a precious gem. People cherish what they have here, and that's a beautiful thing.

Q: Do you find that the students appreciate the environment here as well?

A: Absolutely. They come into class every day with a wonderful attitude. They are positive about making music. They work really hard and have the abilities to dig very deep into the music making. It's not a shallow, surface level musical experience. They're hungry to make something special together, and they're there to do it every day.

Q: You mentioned that you're using a lot of different locations for concerts around town. Can you elaborate on what that has and will look like?

A: Yes. We recently performed at the Bo Bartlett Center. It was my chamber group, called the Chamber Singers. It's a new ensemble this year. We performed in the art gallery and used specific pieces of art on exhibit at the time to inspire our repertoire. The entire program of the concert coincided with the art people were seeing as we performed. It was very neat.

Q: Amazing. You clearly are passionate about what you do. How do you communicate that passion to your students and audience? What is your philosophy on music making?

A: I believe very strongly that the lines that we create as human beings, and have created over centuries, that differentiate between different art forms, music forms, and even people groups. My goal is to erase all of those lines. I really feel that they just continue to divide us in a way and continue to keep our minds closed.

My philosophy on choral music is that it is the perfect way to incorporate dance, theatre, acting, storytelling, texts from all different areas of the world. Every single culture in the world has spoken and sung word. I feel like it's my duty to expose people to as many cultures as possible. It's also my responsibility to open up my students minds, and the minds in our audience, to the fact that the texts we sing connect us all. Text is written to communicate about experiences. Though we may not share the same life experiences exactly, we can all relate to each other as human beings. For example, everyone has experienced loss in some way. We all have probably experienced guilt in some way. We've probably all had to seek some sort of comfort and solace in the midst of our life experiences. I feel so strongly that we can and should make music in such a way that we share empathy with one another. Your experiences may not be my experiences, but we can absolutely relate. Music does that as an art form. It's my job to make it happen.

Q: Do your students move around in concert when appropriate?

A: Absolutely. I also have an acting background, and my dissertation was actually a rehearsal method I created that teaches acting to the singer. I studied how acting methods can enhance singing. I'm using that method with all of my students. I'm hoping they can take these techniques into their solo repertoire.

Q: I knew the vocal faculty loved you, and now I know why.

A: (laughing) They are wonderful. We are all very much on the same page. We believe in teaching honest communication of text.

Q: Who have you been inspired by the most?

A: My favorite musician is Audra McDonald. I was a very perfectionistic child. I played the flute, I played the piano, and I was a dancer. I never practiced in front of my family. I always practiced in private.

My parents were the head deacons in our Congregational church, so we had a key to the church. I used to go to the church basement and I would practice there. I didn't want anyone to see me or hear me until I was perfect.

I was really stifling my own growth. No one can become great unless they decide they can become messy. Within that mess is the gem.

When I was thirteen, I saw Audra McDonald playing Sarah on Broadway in the musical Ragtime. I remember this so vividly. I was kind of short and I was in the front row of the balcony and I couldn't see without my chin on the bar. There I was sitting there watching the entire show like that.

Audra McDonald came running down the stairs in a scene in the show. She was singing and coming downstairs when all of a sudden her voice cracked. It enhanced the performance for me. In her mess was perfection. I was only thirteen, but it completely unlocked me. I could see that, "Oh, she was able to reach me more deeply because she threw herself into this story and I could see how true it was through that crack of emotion in her performance."

Q: That is an incredible story. Have you shared that story with your students?

A: I have. I shared it because of how much it impacted my life as a young person. Vocal technique is so important. Our students have to learn the technique. Audra McDonald is a classically trained Juilliard soprano. She knows her technique and is a master. She has studied and practiced and worked on her technique to the point where she can rely on it. She also understands though that there is more to a performance than technique. She knows when to let go and just sing in a performance. It is in that vulnerability that beauty exists.

Q: How does that lesson translate to your students?

A: I think it's my biggest responsibility to my students. To teach them the technique. To make them excellent. And then to go even deeper. To get them involved emotionally in the text. To get to them to know it so well that they know it cold. Like the back of their hand. And then throw themselves into a performance in an honest and vulnerable way to create something beautiful.

What's wonderful is that there's no snobbiness or rolled eyes in that room. They are along for the ride. We are all on the same page, and that's amazing.

Q: Is that rare? To have students that way?

A: It really, really is. To have young people so committed to their craft and each other is a rare thing. I really feel as though I found the niche here that I was searching for. To be able to create art in the choral realm. It's a dream.

Q: What can you share with us about Brahms' Requiem? What would you like for audience members to know about the work?

A: Brahms’ Requiem celebrates the living, rather than the dead.   Where other settings of the Requiem are in Latin (Verdi, Mozart, Fauré, Duruflé), and follow the traditional liturgical Mass for those who have died, Johannes Brahms carefully chose his own texts from the German Luther Bible and structured his work both textually and musically around those of us who remain and mourn.  The entire piece is a spiritual journey of one who mourns, who questions life and all its purpose, who grasps with the great mystery of life and the life hereafter, who finds joy everlasting - Ewige freude - that “the redeemed of the Lord will come again”, who grapple to learn, imploring from the Lord, “ teach me! That I must have an end, and that my life has a purpose and that I must accept this.”, who challenges death – “Death, where is thy Sting!  Hell, where is thy Victory!”  It is only after six full movements of questioning, challenging, grappling, searching that we are able to finally sing Selig sind die Toten, Blessed are the Dead!  

Q: What other repertoire will be performed in the concert?

A: We begin this concert with two 21st century choral pieces that deal specifically with life and death: Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, addressing the majesty and purity of light at birth, and Daley’s In Remembrance, addressing life afterwards: Do not stand at my grave and weep – I am not there.  I did not die.  Then, we will commence with Brahms’ human Requiem. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Brahms' Requiem is perhaps the most scrumptious, comforting, nostalgic, heartfelt, delicious choral music ever written, and the choir is singing with it purpose, intensity, passion, and with Joy Everlasting: or "Ewige Freude."

The four hand piano arrangement is intimate and personal and our pianists, Tatiana Muzanova and Susan Davis Hoskins are two of the finest artists I have ever encountered. Making music with them is like playing in the sand box!

For our soloists, I am really excited to bring back our Schwob friend, Terrence Gibson Jr. on the baritone solo, and to introduce my dear friend Adia Evans from my University of Maryland days to the community here as our soprano soloist. Both capture the spirit of this music with their soaring voices and their warm effusive hearts.

Brahms' Requiem seeks an answer to the greatest mystery. Please come seek it with us. ◼︎

If You Go:

What: Brahms' Requiem

Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Legacy Hall

When: Tuesday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free Contact:


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