Friday, March 12, 2010

NSO - Verdi - 03/11/10

Conductor: Christopher Eschenbach
Verdi: Requiem - Twyla Robinson, Mihoko Fujimura, Nikolai Schukoff, Evgeny Nikitin & The Washington Chorus

As soon as March comes around, you can be sure that spring and Verdi's Requiem are likely to make their equally welcome appearances in the Washington, DC area. Spring seemed to be shyly lurking earlier this week, but Verdi's monumental liturgical work was for sure scheduled on the National Symphony Orchestra's calendar later in the week, with maestro Eschenbach making his first appearance since the announcement of his nomination as the NSO's latest Music Director, a post he will officially take on in September. As a die-hard fan of opera and classical music, I could only rejoice at the thought of being able to revel in such a perfectly balanced cocktail of those two arts.
Verdi's Requiem has always struck me as more in tune with the relentless drama surrounding the Latin text than the stuffiness of the Catholic mass. Being a dedicated agnostic all of his adult life obviously did not prevent him to reflect on the issues of conscience and spirituality. He had originally composed Libera Me after Rossini's death as part of a Requiem that was supposed to be made of contributions from all the leading Italian composers at the time but never came to fruition. Therefore, when five years later his personal friend the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a true Italian national hero, passed away, he decided to honor him with a full Requiem.
As an experienced opera man (he had completed no fewer than 16 of them at the time), Verdi knew a thing or two about exploring and expanding the power and possibilities of the human voice, and his Requiem is probably the most operatic of them all. Far from the solemn beauty of Mozart's and the grand pomposity of Berlioz's, Verdi's red-blooded version dwells deeply on primitive human emotions such as fear and hope. To bring those to life, last night we were lucky to have our first-class Washington Chorus and a quartet of international and internationally acclaimed singers. Christopher Eschenbach's reputation to shake things up is definitely bringing some excitement to our wide-ranging but still pretty conservative cultural scene, so we were all looking forward to a very special evening.

And we got it. After a beautifully hushed opening, highlighting the NSO's much celebrated cellos, the music and chorus gently then assertively rose, charged with expectations, before the soloists made their first appearances in the stirring cry for mercy "Kyrie". Without a pause, a near-hysterical "Dies Irae" suddenly erupted, forcefully imposing a truly terrifying vision of the Last Judgement. And that was just the beginning. The rest of the performance mostly managed to keep the same level of intensity thanks to a thrillingly brilliant chorus and an admirable quartet that faced many challenges and met them head on. Most notable was the sharp contract between Mihoko Fujimua's Wagnerian steelness and Twyla Robinson's singsongy lightness, and their duo in the delicate Agnus Dei will definitely be remembered. Christopher Eschenbach seemed to immerse himself body and soul in a work that obviously means a lot to him, and after taking us on a wild ride right between heaven and hell, he brought us all safely to the whispering final plea for deliverance.

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