Vetting Verdi

An admittedly biased review of a beautiful work

OK, I admit it. In case you didn’t read my preview (May 30 issue), let me make it clear up front that I’m favorably biased towards these performers — especially on the choral end. That’s because I got to rub elbows with the Westminster Choir as a member of the chorus when festival choral director Joseph Flummerfelt last conducted Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem here in 1997. That was one of the supreme musical experiences of my lifetime. And it gave me a unique perspective as to what makes both this music and these musicians tick. Still, feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt.

It was a strange, but revelatory experience to hear this music from the other side of the stage for a change. I caught myself lip-synching through much of it. Otherwise, I just sat there — stunned at the sheer emotional punch and sonic splendor of it all. Verdi, the operatic master, went for the BIG effect in this work. He wasn’t a religious man — and the work’s emotional fervor is more a matter of operatic melodrama than sacred sentiment.

It was written as a musical monument to Italian literary giant Alessandro Manzoni — but also as a touring blockbuster that ended up making him lots of money. But all that hardly matters: it’s still the most violent, terrifying, and simply gorgeous musical maelstrom of a requiem ever written. The pile-driving “Dies Irae” theme returns throughout the piece, keeping the fear factor high. Like I’ve said before, this is music that makes you cower and cringe. Forget about the Latin text, close your eyes, and you’d swear you were hearing grand opera. Verdi knew exactly what he was doing.

And, last night, Maestro Flummerfelt knew exactly what he was doing, too. He also knew exactly what he wanted — and for the most part, he got it. The Orchestra was simply spectacular; the best I’ve ever heard them play for him. And the mighty chorus — combining Joe Miller’s Westminster Choir with Rob Taylor’s Charleston Symphony Chorus — was in superb form. They sang with tremendous power, vigor, and accuracy, plus impressive dynamic range and glorious tone. In places, they were singing about as loud as human voices can manage, yet the marauding orchestra still nearly succeeded in drowning them out once or twice.

The operatic impression was bolstered by four mostly fine soloists, all of them had the kind of Italianate vocal strength and inflections to bring off their roles effectively. But some were better than others. Soprano Jennifer Check, who last soloed here in the Brahms Requiem two festivals ago, was well-nigh perfect in her solo passages. At top volume and range, she cut through the thickest orchestral textures like a scalpel. Yet she could float the most exquisite pianissimos, too. Basso Alfred Walker was the other real standout. You could hear every one of his booming, rock-solid low notes, and he offered exceptional vocal beauty for a bass.

It sounded like tenor Eduardo Valdez wasn’t in the very best of voice. He delivered his lines with smooth, sweet lyricism, but he sounded kind of “fragile” and insecure in his quieter stretches. Still, he opened up into some lovely, ringing high notes. Michaela Martens often pleased, with her meaty mezzo voice and genuine sentiment. But she left a few of her notes distinctly flat, and tended to lag behind the beat.

That may have affected the soloists’ ensemble work, too. It sounded vaguely off here and there. They definitely dragged in a couple of the ladies’ duet passages and in one of the trios. You could tell that the Maestro was trying to coax them up to his tempo in several spots. My only other complaint was a very noisy audience: at least two cellphones went off during quieter passages, and folks were coughing and sneezing like it was the height of cold and flu season.

Still, nothing went terribly wrong, and just about everything was well worth hearing. There were musical thrills aplenty, including moments of shiver-me-timbers glory and glitter that don’t happen often. The total body-chill that wracked me as the remote brass choirs got down to heralding judgement day is something I’ll never forget.

I was overjoyed to be part of this audience. If you weren’t there, you should’ve been. Still, nothing can beat the supreme rush of singing it.

Westminster Choir • VERDI: MESSA DA REQUIEM • Spoleto Festival USA