Meet the Artist: Mark Doerries

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

[About an 8 MIN read]

Brahms' Requiem Hero Image
Brahms' Requiem Hero Image

Meet the Artist: Mark Doerries

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

[About an 8 MIN read]

Where melodies become threads weaving through the tapestry of emotions, conductor Mark Doerries guides the journey from grief to hope, in the upcoming performance of Brahms’ Requiem. The event promises a harmonious collaboration between the Sacred Music Notre Dame, the Singing Irish of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, members from the Notre Dame Children’s Liturgical Choir, and the Sacred Music Festival Orchestra. 

Through the timeless notes of Brahms, Doerries crafts an experience that transcends the 19th century. Join as we delve into the world of Mark Doerries and the profound resonance he brings to Brahms’ masterpiece.

Music conveys with sound what cannot be expressed with words alone. In the face of death and grief, there are no singular emotions. Words like loss, sadness, isolation, only begin to communicate feelings that are as physiological as they are psychological. Bereavement is often a solitary act. While music contains value when experienced individually, when witnessed in community, music creates shared catharsis. Without the audience speaking a word, we share a common vulnerability and open ourselves to feel uninhibited joy, sorrow, contentment, and regret. We spend great effort daily trying to control our emotions, but music and live performance are where we carve out a safe place for us to feel. The composer and choreographer Meredith Monk writes that music “affirms the world of feeling in a time and society where feeling and direct experiences are in danger of being eliminated.” We cannot always predict what is felt by performers and audiences, yet, for me, live music offers an ethereal moment where our emotions control us rather than we control our emotions. 

Situated in the center of the Romantic music era and as lush and expressive as Brahms’ melodies are, the music of the Requiem equally looks to composers of the past for inspiration. The work is as contrapuntal as the music of Bach and the fugues of Haydn and Mozart. Each movement begins with a unison or homophonic melody that introduces texts of mourning, yet toward the conclusion of each movement Brahms uses buoyant imitative counterpoint, fugues, and dense countersubjects to convey the joy of the life hereafter. These musical forms are characterized by each section of the chorus singing its own unique melodies. Like a grand tapestry where individual threads are woven into a visual landscape of a biblical narrative, the individual and intricate melodies sung by the chorus build a sonic landscape that is greater than its individual parts. These musical tapestries require unceasing focus as they are musically challenging and emotionally delicate. 

I am drawn to two texts from the Requiem:

1 Peter 1:24 (Movement II)

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.


Isaiah 66:13 (Movement V)

As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

The Requiem is a journey from darkness into light; from brokenness to healing. At the age of 40 I was diagnosed with stage 4 renal cancer. I awoke in the middle of the night with immense pain and bleeding. After a CT scan, what I had hoped was a kidney stone was a baseball sized carcinoma inside my right kidney. After an initial diagnosis of a contained tumor, two weeks later nodules were discovered in lungs. My family and I visited local doctors as well as surgeons and oncologists in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York City. I remember one particularly inelegant doctor sharing that 40 years ago when he began treating patients in my condition he would tell them they only had 9 months to live (he then walked out of the room to let us decide whether I would have him perform the operation). Until then, I held on to hope of survival, then my world disappeared. For the first time, I could not see or imagine my future; I lived hour-by-hour. (I should say the doctor heard my sobs and returned to tell me that after 40 years of research survival rates were much higher today, but the physiological damage was done.) Today, after surgery and two years of treatment, I am healthy, though I continue to live with cancer. It will always be with me, hopefully in remission; it does not ever fully go away and is part of who I am. 

I continue to struggle at times with what I refer to as the Horizon of Death; when the end feels iminent, its emptiness absorbs all hope and foresight. I tried to move forward, but it has taken me two years to believe that I have a future on this Earth. I spent more than a year denying that I was afraid and compartmentalizing a loss of self. When one has cancer, you suddenly see it in the community all around you. While I live, friends, colleagues, and infusion acquaintances of mine are not as fortunate; still, others continue to survive, but at great cost. As I began to study the Brahms Requiem a year ago, it was an invitation to feel the fear, pain, and grief of my illness and experience the joy of survival, gratitude for family, friends, and incredible doctors, and the loss for those whose time came early. 

Loss comes in many forms, death being only one. Though I live, a part of me has died (metaphysical, not just the cancer!). I hope those who come to our performance feel safe acknowledging their own losses whether loved ones, relationships, or seasons of life. The Brahms Requiem has something to say to each of us. 

I hope you feel something. Stay open to the possibility of being moved. Perhaps you disagree with our interpretation of the music or even detest the other two pieces on the program, but love it or hate it, I hope our performance makes you feel.  

My favorite composer continues to be Meredith Monk, whose music, vocal music, largely without words, speaks directly to our emotions without any intermediary. 

I love whatever music I am working on. But, my heart loves avant garde and modernist music, that which some might consider ugly or as a friend of mine calls it, “squeaks and squawks.” A peer of mine recently shared with me that music should unite us and provide comfort. They suggested that there is so much music that brings us together that we do not need to perform works with difficult histories, composers, or themes. While I believe in the power of music to create community, I also believe music that is always harmonious with agreeable texts dismisses the full human experience. We are emotionally complex beings that experience despair, melancholy, and hopelessness as much as exultation, comfort, and jocundity. For me, difficult-to-listen-to music exposes the other half of our emotional lives. It acknowledges that in distress, we are not alone across time. The music of Arnold Schönberg, Karol Szymanoski, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen or the minimalists, Steven Reich, Meredith Monk, and John Adams speak to me in ways few others can. 

George Walker’s Lyric for Strings stands in the median of the spectrum of harmonious and dissonant music. His music uses long, haunting melodies within unstable harmonies to evoke a deep sense of loss. It makes a perfect prelude to Brahms’ Requiem.

I read voraciously, sometimes mindless fiction and at other times classic works. I am currently working through the collected fiction of Madeleine L’Engle. I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time as a child and being captivated by science-fiction, but as an adult I am moved by the call to Love. There is a quote I carry from L’Engle’s An Acceptable Time, “The lines of Love cross time and space.”

We hope that you join us for this spiritual and elevating performance on Saturday, February 3!

February 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Brahms’ Requiem

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sacred Music Notre Dame, the Singing Irish of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, members from the Notre Dame Children’s Liturgical Choir, and the Sacred Music Festival Orchestra perform Brahms’ Requiem. Another in the canon of genuinely sublime choral masterworks was written not as a Mass for the Dead but to comfort the living. Brahms charts a journey through grief to hope and healing that is beautiful, moving, and spiritually uplifting, making this timeless work of the 19th century still relevant today.

Made possible by the Marjorie O’Malley Sacred Music Series. Co-sponsored by Sacred Music at Notre Dame.

Categories: Meet The Artist, News + Announcements