Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Hartford's Chorale's Verdi Requiem - “A Powerful Performance”

On April 3 and 4, it was my pleasure to sing the Verdi Requiem with The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The Chorale was prepared by its gifted Music Director Richard Coffey, and the performances were conducted by the HSO’s dynamic Artistic Director Edward Cumming. (Visit Maestro Cumming’s blog, From the Podium.)

I regret that a busy schedule in the past few weeks prevented me from writing more about our preparation and performance of this remarkable music. As usual, I engaged in some in-depth reading and study which deepened my understanding of this music and informed my performance. I’ve kept my research and score notes; perhaps someday the essays will be finished and published here.

In any case, the Chorale and the Orchestra shone in both performances. The second performance in particular was riveting; the Chorale achieved stunning dynamic contrasts and a remarkable emotional intensity that was wholly appropriate for this very dramatic (though sacred) text music. The orchestra was magnificent; the HSO just gets better and better.

I love, love, love my assigned standing spot on the risers, at the very end of the third row, stage right; it affords a sweeping view of the entire orchestra and is just a few feet away from the percussion section. The Requiem calls only for timpani and bass drums, and these were played to perfection! The bass drum strokes in the Dies irae were played with such force on the extra-tight drum head (as specified by Verdi) that my hair actually vibrated. Oh my, it was wonderful.

The Hartford Courant published a review of the Friday night performance. Too bad the reviewer was not there for the Saturday performance, which was so much better!.The review was published at The Courant's website on the afternoon of April 4; since then, it seems to have been removed from The Courant's website.

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Hartford Symphony Meets The Requiem ChallengeBy JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
April 4, 2009

To perform the Verdi Requiem is to accept a challenge. The work requires the coordination of massive forces and abounds in logistical complications. It is expensive to produce. The music itself is challenging.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, bringing the Masterworks Series back into the Mortensen Hall for the first time since September, met the Requiem challenge with a powerful performance.

The historical record shows that Verdi allowed an intermission after the "Dies Irae," and also acknowledged, and sometimes encouraged, applause after movements. Verdi also, on occasion, allowed encores of movements at the request of the audience.

Maestro Edward Cumming chose the opposite strategy. He presented the work in a single sweep, without intermission — 90 minutes of music. This became the sweetest of all the challenges, because it allowed the audience to experience the sequential drama of this haunting music. To hear the work uninterrupted is to hear it with all possible connections "plugged in." It allows direct contact with the elegant distribution of ensembles that sum and carry forward as the music progresses.

Cumming framed his interpretation by developing strong contrasts. This interpretation came across right from the start in passages like the "Te decet hymnus" ("There shall be singing"). The Hartford Chorale, prepared by music director Richard Coffey, broke cleanly, in forte, from the music that came before, and sang both the details and the message of the text, through dynamic extremes, in beautifully executed vocal motions.

The chorus also triumphed in the fugal passages, the "Sanctus" fugue was fast and bouncy, and the high-volume excitement of the "Dies Irae" was sung with support, not screeched as is commonly the case.
The timpani [actually, it was two bass drums] strokes during the "Dies Irae" sounded like cannon shot, and during its final reprise, in the midst of the "Libera Me," audience members physically startled in their seats.

The four soloists in this work are central to its success. Contralto Jennifer Hines blew us away. Her voice was a rainbow. It was absolutely unforgettable and hypnotic. Her musicality brought lines to life again and again. Everyone seemed to be talking about her in the hallways after the performance.

The "Agnus Dei" was launched by a beautifully balanced duet between Hines and soprano Kate Mangiameli. Their music, developed afterward by the choir, had a sureness of touch that made the colorful extensions later in the movement, particularly the passage accompanied by three flutes, memorable music making.

Mangiameli's singing was most impressive when she got above the staff. She could control her high Bs and Cs and met the challenges of the frequently exposed writing that this music presents. Her voice was lovely in the closing "Libera Me," but her decision to add drama to the part with operatic facial gestures distracted from her musicality.

Tenor Bryan Register and bass Gustav Andreassen added power to the mix, contributing both in solo work and especially in well-balanced quartet singing. Lesser singers get covered by the orchestra, but Register and Andreassen had no problem being heard.

Cumming conducted the work from memory. This is not typical in performances of the Verdi Requiem, perhaps because the conductor is so frequently invisible behind the soloists. In a work of this complexity it revealed a kind of assurance, and it focused that signature of Cumming — his direct and unbroken communication with the ensemble.

Just prior to setting this massive work in motion, Cumming addressed the audience. He dedicated the performance of the work to the memory of Alexander Lepak who died on March 25. Lepak was a timpanist and percussionist with the Hartford Symphony for 56 years. This performance of the Verdi Requiem, filled with both attention and passion, was a worthy tribute.
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant

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