After more than four decades of bringing unparalleled choral excellence to Spoleto festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt has decided it’s time to bow out as the festival’s Director of Choral Activities. While he may have valid reasons for retiring, diminished performing ability is certainly not one of them. Indeed, judging from the spectacular account of Giuseppe Verdi’s evergreen Requiem that he and his huge company of forces delivered at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena on Thursday evening, our cherished choral guru is stepping down at the top of his game.
The omens were all auspicious for an exceptional performance. A stellar quartet of soloists had been lined up, the vaunted Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO) has been in tip-top form all festival long, and the superb Westminster Choir (WC) has had a great year. Not only that, but the WC’s choral partner, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (CSOC), couldn’t possibly have been better prepared, having pretty much nailed the same work here with its parent orchestra less than two months ago. Good friends of mine in the CSOC have been reporting to me that, from the way rehearsals had been going, true musical magic was brewing. The only real question mark was the festival’s decision, with the Gaillard Auditorium under renovation, to resort to staging the event at a revamped sports arena that had not been designed with musical performances in mind.
The Requiem, Italian operatic master Verdi’s so-called “Sacred Opera,” came at a crucial turning point in his nation’s history; it was thus more political in purpose than sacred, serving as a kind of musical crown to the long and turbulent process of national unification. Italy languished in geographic and cultural tatters following the Napoleonic wars, and, as it takes more than armed conquest to make a true nation, certain cultural icons had been among the emerging country’s leading standard-bearers.
The greatest Italian literary figure of the day was poet-novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who emphasized national liberation themes and sought to “standardize” the Italian language in his writing. Verdi, as the nation’s undisputed “opera king,” had been writing operas for decades that dealt with themes of delivery from tyranny and foreign oppression. Thus it was entirely fitting that, upon Manzoni’s death in 1873, Verdi resolved to compose a grand Requiem mass in his honor, as well as to expand his own considerable fame and fortune.
Verdi, never a conventionally religious man, had relied on his operatic instincts and experience in writing it, producing a work that was, stylistically speaking, really more of an opera than a religious work, overflowing with his typically melodramatic operatic tricks and musical clichés. Knowing what the public loved, and, being then at his creative peak, he made it all work beautifully, investing the traditional requiem mass with heretofore unprecedented levels of musical sweetness, ardent supplication, unsettling doubt … and sheer, cosmic terror. One can’t help but wonder if Verdi’s lack of personal faith could have had something to with the work’s preoccupation with eternal damnation and ardent cries for divine salvation.
His motives may well also have been financial: scored for large chorus and orchestra, and calling for the finest available operatic voices as soloists. Verdi’s stature and influence saw to its performance across Europe in dozens of theaters and concert halls (he never intended it as a church work). It made quite a splash, as well as lots of money. Save for a brief spell of neglect after Verdi’s death, this one-of-a-kind blockbuster has been packing houses and thrilling big crowds ever since.
And so it was at the TD Arena on Thursday. And, since that venue’s suitability for such a musical extravaganza was one of this year’s burning questions, I’m here to tell you that the enclosure served its purpose reasonably well. It did indeed satisfy demand, in that it accommodated quite a hefty crowd. And, despite the nasty wind and rain of approaching tropical storm Andrea, there were very few empty seats. With the Sottile Theatre’s acoustic shell in place, overall sound quality wasn’t bad … though it could’ve been better. After all, the building was designed for indoor sports, not concerts. As such, despite the acoustic modifications, the sound seemed to have a slightly cool, mono-dimensional ring to it, as opposed to the warmer and more well-rounded surround-sound ambience that you usually get in a well-designed concert hall.
Still, at least from where I was seated, I could hear the work’s softest pianissimos and loudest fortissimos alike, and overall balances between soloists, chorus, and orchestra weren’t bad at all. While the audiophiles among us have good reason to look forward to the new Gaillard Auditorium’s completion in 2015, the TD Arena should do rather nicely until then.
Musically, everything went spectacularly well. The SFO delivered kaleidoscopic big-band soundscapes, responding beautifully to their Maestro’s meticulous cuing and dynamic guidance. The combined WC/CSOC mega-chorus was simply magnificent, with rumbly, seismic basses, piercing tenors, plummy altos, and sweet sopranos. Collectively, they had power and punch to burn, as in their wild ride through the Dies Irae passages, but they executed their several quiet passages with exquisite delicacy and nuance. Their playful, eight-part Sanctus was a cleanly executed marvel, as was their riveting fugue in the final Libera me section. With extra trumpets pealing forth from their stations near the enclosure’s rafters, the demonically pounding Tuba Mirum section was incomparably thrilling.
All four soloists owned top-end, opera-grade voices, and performed splendidly both individually and in ensemble. Soprano Jennifer Check caressed our ears at every turn with a creamy, yet potent instrument that never went shrill or edgy, even in her most dramatic passages. Margaret Lattimore impressed mightily, with her lush mezzo voice that soared from gutsy chest-tones to thrilling high notes. Tenor Bruce Sledge has an especially versatile tenor voice that’s ideal for bel canto roles, but his solid spinto instincts, emotive style, and ringing top end made him a great match for this role. Alfred Walker was the Verdi basso par excellence, able to project everything from endearing tenderness to punchy toughness. All of them put their hearts and souls into their singing, negotiating the music’s huge expanses of both human and spiritual emotions with gripping conviction.
So, chalk up a final and resounding triumph for one of Spoleto’s most beloved and influential icons, who, alongside former longtime chamber music director Charles Wadsworth, has no doubt done more to shape the musical content of Spoleto USA as we know it than any other artist. We have every reason to believe that, under the inspired leadership of Joe Miller, Flummerfelt’s successor, the peerless quality and amazing range of choral art at Spoleto will continue apace, though it may well unfold in different ways and directions.
Still, our fervent thanks and fond farewells need not be our last. As Flummerfelt told us from the stage (after being honored by Mayor Joe Riley), he loves Charleston and Spoleto very dearly, and plans on returning to the Holy City simply to enjoy the festival’s rich artistic cornucopia as an audience member in the future. And, as he told us in his conversation with Martha Teichner on Tuesday, he will stay busy teaching (his greatest love) and conducting the other choirs he works with in New York and Italy.
So, dear Joe: Vaya con Dios, and auf Wiedersehen — for we surely haven’t yet seen the last of each other yet.