Monday, February 14, 2011

Carnegie Hall Festival Anniversary Chorus - Berlioz - 02/13/11

Berlioz: Requiem, Op. 5
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus
The Concord Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Donors Choir
Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Conductor: Robert Spano
Chorus Conductor: Norman Mackenzie
Tenor: Thomas Cooley

After Mitsuko Uchida’s intimate recital last Friday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall yesterday for one of classical music’s most monumental achievements: Berlioz’s Requiem. Working for a government commission, the French composer first took inspiration from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass but quickly came up with his very own epic, which originally required no less than 190 musicians, 210 singers as well as additional timpani and brass choirs. Even if nowadays most performances of it are not that crowded, they still feature an unusual orchestration with, most notably, four groups of brass instruments often placed in separate locations offstage, and a consistently huge chorus.
Although in my view Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts cannot compete with the haunting beauty of Mozart’s or the operatic grandeur of Verdi’s own requiems, it is nevertheless a work of undeniable power, which could only mean yet another exciting adventure at Carnegie Hall where the forces of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, The Concord Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Donors Choir, the Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School and the always reliable Orchestra of St. Luke’s all converged yesterday afternoon under the baton of fearless Robert Spano to make it happen.

Berlioz’s Requiem is a composition that put the chorus to the test from the very beginning and does not let them relax for another 90 minutes. So if for any reason they’re not up to task, those can quickly become some very painful 90 minutes. But all was well yesterday. The singers all blended beautifully together and managed to easily keep up their momentum throughout the emotionally and technically daunting marathon. Unfortunately, all this blockbusting music-making did not quite succeed in covering some light and sporadic jingling, which eventually turned out to be produced by the long and elaborate earrings of a nearby tarted up pin-up,who definitely looked more geared up for club-hopping than Requiem-listening. Luckily for her, she was safely out of my reach, so I had to resist the urge of swiftly pulling off the annoying noise-makers, which would have certainly added a touch of real-life agony to all the drama already going on.
Although the fortissimo passages in the Dies Irae, Rex Tremendae and the composition’s magnificent center, the Lacrysoma, readily stood out for their sheer musical force and complexity, my personal highlight of the performance was the dignified tenor solo in the transcendental Sanctus, complete with lofty, lingering notes from a flute and eerie female voices from the chorus. Standing up behind the audience at the right end of the dress circle, le ténor du jour, Thomas Cooley, was simply splendid. Amidst all the lightning and thunder mercilessly rolling on, it was the precious moments of lyricism and simplicity that I appreciated the most, and the wonderful strings of the Orchestra of St Luke’s sure shone whenever they had a chance to do just that.

Bottom line is, while I still find Berlioz’s Requiem slightly on the loud and pompous side, hearing such a ground-breaking and rarely performed work live certainly gave a more immediate, organic dimension to the whole experience, and I am grateful I had a chance to do so in such grand style.

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