I had never listened to Verdi’s Requiem mass before. But a local symphony orchestra (yes, there is one – no laughing in the back there) and our university chorus and some outside soloists they must’ve either threatened or bribed performed it on campus yesterday afternoon, and, well, I guess you go, right?
It was odd hearing this, mostly because the music is so very much Verdi music, with the same range of color and beauty of orchestral detail. It sounds like one of his operas fell asleep and dreamed a mass setting – there were sections in the recordare bit of the dies irae where in terms of emotional pitch and general shape the cello parts might have been taken out of Don Carlos. (In that movement and in several other sections there was also a repetition of that same halfstep upward da-DUUM motif that pops up so often in that opera.) The vocal ensembles with orchestral backing have the same feel that Verdi’s operatic ones do – there were moments when the intense drama and musical conversation and interaction among the vocal lines and the various parts of the orchestra were such that the thing seemed to be about something else or something in addition to the liturgical setting that it actually is.
The orchestral playing was not ideal. The intonation from the cellos at the beginning of the offertorio made me cringe, and a little earlier at the very end of the lacrimosa there was this odd little drawn-out sound as if someone was blowing through a wind instrument but the tone was not emerging. I do not know what that sound was; one of my colleagues who went with me to hear this and who played the flute as a student was equally stumped as to what that sound was. It was a not-on-purpose type sound, but beyond that we couldn’t tell.
But there were things to enjoy as well. I particularly liked the (I think) solo bassoon in the “quid sum miser” and (if one sort of listened around the soprano and mezzo) the interplay of the flutes in the agnus dei. There was more of Verdi’s ethereally pretty woodwind writing in the lux aeterna, and here one did not even have to listen through, around, or past the vocal soloists. This (along with the quartet in the lacrymosa) was one of the moments where the performance seemed to click. It’s a mezzo/tenor/bass trio with orchestra, and the mezzo, particularly at the beginning, seemed to have finally hit her groove. An additional groove was reached by the soprano in the final section, the libera me, where the soprano part gets to soar and – if all goes well – cut over and through the orchestra and in general be pretty and big and exiting. This happened. I had my doubts as we went into the thing, but it happened. In general, I would say that of the vocal soloists, the strongest was probably the bass.
Lest I seem dismissive, I should emphasize that I did enjoy this performance. If you said it occasionally lacked finesse, you would not be being unfair, but orchestra and chorus lit into the big exciting moments like the beginning of the dies irae with evident gusto, and the thing about Verdi’s orchestral music is that even if you don’t play it perfectly, it’s still interesting. Also, it’s sort of sweet to see the undergraduates (the chorus) singing Verdi.
Finally. You know how during concerts you’re supposed to turn off your phone? Well, someone’s phone went off during the concert. The beeping was oddly well articulated acoustically. As it turned out, this was because it was coming not from a member of the audience but from the stage – specifically, from the jacket pocket of one of the double bassists. I guess it’s nice to know that the architecture of our concert hall is such that even subtle details such as this are not lost.