Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Christopher Rouse: Requiem
Jacques Imbrailo: Bass-baritone
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Brooklyn Youth Choir
A cultural capital such as New York City owes it to itself to have a world-class symphony orchestra, and luckily for all of us, it does. But since I love the New York Philharmonic just about as much as I hate the Avery Fisher Hall, I try to stay away from it and wait patiently for them to play somewhere more acoustically pleasing, which usually means yet another trip to Carnegie Hall.
This year the occasion was even more exciting than usual when Monday evening the orchestra was there to open the fourth and (Alas!) final Spring for Music festival, which has been striving to offer a wide range of contemporary music performed by smaller American and Canadian orchestras at an affordable price, an admirable endeavor that made the sight of the rather sparsely crowded auditorium all the more disheartening.
But, in any case, what better way to honor New York City than by presenting the New York premiere of what Christopher Rouse - the Philharmonic's current Composer-in-Residence - himself considers his "magnum opus"? As the festival was kicked off by WQXR's David Garland and dedicated classical music fan Alec Baldwin, hundreds of orange handkerchiefs were cheerfully waved for our musical home team in the best New York tradition.
The mood grew dark and heavy pretty quickly though. Closely inspired by Berlioz's own Requiem and written partly for the bicentennial anniversary of the French composer's birth in 2003, Rouse's Requiem also has a couple of connections to Britten's Requiem, which had been performed less than a week earlier in the same Stern Auditorium, namely the combination of Latin liturgical text for the chorus with English, Italian and Latin vernacular poems for the soloist(s), including a piece by English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who during World War I became brother in arms with English poet Wilfred Owen, whose work can be found all over Britten's Requiem. On Monday night, more coincidental occurrences were the return of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with the girls this time, while the boys had been there for Britten, and the presence of South African bass-baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who was a discreetly but brilliantly effective Billy Budd last fall at BAM.
Rouse's Requiem may be somewhat conventionally long (90 minutes) for a work of that kind, but it is probably the biggest and loudest of them all, so much so in fact that it wisely included an intermission to give artists and audience a well-deserved break. That's when I heard the concert-goers in the box next to mine animatedly complaining about the often cataclysmic loudness of some passages as well as the lack of melodies to hold on to, apparently missing the fact that the raging chaos often had a justified raison d'être in all its fascinating force. I have to confess though, that I was bracing myself every time Alan Gilbert looked like he was getting ready to jump and launch a new assault, and this strategy sure helped soften a few resounding blows.
I will also agree that from time to time the fully committed Westminster Symphonic Choir frustratingly disappeared under the huge orchestra's devastating outbursts, resulting in unrelatable turmoil and not much else. But when given a chance to shine, it did so beautifully, from the haunting "Requiem aeternam", to the lyrical "Quaerens me", to the powerful "Lacrimosa".
Not to be outdone, the girls of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, singing from the far right end of the First Tier, brought a much needed touch of angelic purity to the second part, especially with the Marian hymn (and incidental Christmas carol) "Es ist ein ros entsprungen".
The only moments of true introspection, however, were provided by soloist Jacques Imbrailo, whose sensitive singing depicted with much poise the intense grief experienced by the everyday man when faced with the death of a loved one through poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Michelangelo, Ben Johnson, and John Milton. Unsurprisingly, those quiet islands of deep human distress stood out even more poignantly among the violent contrasts and extreme colors surrounding them.
The composer, who appeared onstage when all had been said and done, looked pleased with the result and received a thunderous ovation. His Requiem may be a technically and emotionally challenging work, but Alan Gilbert remained solidly on top of it and unwaveringly made sure that it received the compelling performance it deserved. And it did.