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Verdi at Strathmore: power and glory

I have sung the Verdi “Requiem” a couple of times and heard it performed by wonderful groups in its entirety several times, but I don’t remember ever being as terrified by the Dies Irae portion or as moved by the Libera me as I was last night at the Strathmore Music Center! By terrified, I should explain that it’s the sound of that huge National Philharmonic Orchestra led so beautifully by Conductor Piotr Gajewski, when playing the opening bars of the Dies irae with the (bear with me here) bump (timpani), boom (bass drum) bump, boom (you get the picture!) and when the combined mighty choruses of the Philharmonic Chorale and the Montgomery College Chorus sing that descending scale pattern describing “The day of wrath, that day shall dissolve the world in ash….” in the magnificently massive Strathmore Music Center, well, oh, my! The hairs on my neck stood straight up. This is choral music at its finest!

Verdi wrote this piece as a Requiem to be performed a year after the death of the great Italian humanist and writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi highly revered, in 1873. He had already written the Libera me portion when the opera composer Gioacchino Rossini (whom Verdi also greatly admired) died. Due to happenstance that performance never happened, so the Libera me was the starting point for this full-blown Requiem Mass or Messe de Requiem to honor Manzoni. You might be aware that Verdi did not think of himself as an atheist, but rather a “doubtful believer or great sceptic” (or so said his wife). Therefore, he set out to write a grand religious work to be performed in honor of the memory of a great artist. Over the years, however, many musicians and scholars have snidely referred to this as not religious in tone at all, but as having all the dramatic flair of Verdi’s most accomplished operas.

Whatever. I love it with all its grandiose passion and pathos and I bathe in the beauty of the magnificent sound of it. Further, when this piece is as well-sung as the Requiem I heard last night, I don’t care what anyone calls it–just let me hear it—again! His writing for the four soloists (who certainly acquitted themselves very well last night) is incredibly varied, challenging, and virtuosic (read difficult!). He actually had singers with whom he had worked in mind when he wrote their parts–a soprano with a fabulous high C and a mezzo with a gorgeous legato.

Well, he could also have been writing for these modern day soloists: Danielle Talamantes, soprano, and Margaret Lattimore, mezzo-soprano, Zach Borichevsky, tenor, and Kevin Deas, bass. I have heard Ms. Talamantes in her Metropolitan Opera role of Frasquita in “Carmen” and was not at all surprised at her consistent performance with an entirely unforced but totally focused voice which soared over the 300 or so choristers and orchestra members to the back of the hall. Her gleaming top and floating pianissimos in the Libera me left me breathless! I had not heard Ms. Lattimore previously, but was delighted to hear her rich, creamy sound in the gorgeous duet, Recordare and the trio, Lux aeterna, both sung with the greatest of ease and assuredness. The pairing of the two women’s voices was a little odd to my ear, however, because of the brightness of Ms. Talamates’ sound paired with the much darker, somewhat covered sound of Ms. Lattimore, but that’s just my opinion, and certainly did not in the slightest tarnish the gleam of the overall performance.

The two men brought great excitement to their roles and performances, especially tenor Zach Borichevsky, whose consistently strong and richly varied, impressive sound could, I’m sure, be heard throughout the house. Bass Kevin Deas exhibited a lovely masterful sound at the top of the evening, but later on seemed to possibly tire a bit and his pitch seemed to be somewhat unreliable especially in the exposed a capella parts of the Requiem. If you are reading this, I’m certain you know that this is a heroic work to sing at best, and to sing over the combined vocal and instrumental forces available at this performance, well, anyone could tire. Overall, however, the four soloists came off beautifully and no one could ask for more!

As I said previously, just “play it (and sing it) again, Sam!” I’m up for it!

Sara Dudley Brown,
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