La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 27 February 2014

A Monumental Verdi Requiem from Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony!

Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Hui He, soprano
Marianne Cornetti, mezzo-soprano
Giorgio Berrugi, tenor
Ain Anger, bass
Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden

Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas
Sunday, February 23, 2014

It wasn’t the first time that Jaap van Zweden had conducted Verdi’s Messa da Requiem in Dallas, it hopefully won’t be the last, and it was memorable in all the right ways. The climaxes were stupendous, the quiet moments were ethereal, and the entire work held together as a deeply-felt lament for the dead.

Giuseppe Verdi
The Verdi Requiem is a theatrical piece in the sense that Verdi was primarily an opera composer. He didn’t write any symphonies or concertos and concentrated his energies on writing for the operatic stage in his native Italy. The melodies and choruses in this work would fit very well into one of his operas; parts of the “Dies Irae," for example, could have been used for the “auto de fé" scene in Don Carlo. The dramatic approach works in the Requiem; after all, there is nothing more dramatic in anyone’s life than the leaving of it. Most people are fearful of death, wondering what, if anything, comes next and desperately seeking to come to terms with what they have made of their lives. Verdi has plumbed the depths of these anxieties in his Messa da Requiem, and it is one of his greatest works.

Jaap van Zweden brings to every score he conducts an enormous respect for the composer, and a commitment to bringing that music to life. While his integrity will not allow him to exaggerate for greater effect, this approach never results in a scholarly or dull performance; what van Zweden achieves is an intensity which imbues every note in a score with life and meaning - and so it was with this performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. The opening bars might have been a little softer than they needed to be, but in straining to hear those muted cello notes we were drawn into the mystery of death right from the beginning. When the music modulates to F major and Verdi indicates a slightly faster tempo for this choral section, Maestro van Zweden’s beat was markedly faster - again, a convincing tempo change because it was done with conviction, and further on, with the most beautiful phrasing and tapering of dynamics. Masterful.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti a Casting Coup
Verdi has given the soloists in this work the most commanding entries imaginable. Tenor, bass and soprano each have four bars in which to assert themselves as major players in the drama. From these few, but telling, bars we learn early on whether or not our soloists have what it takes to carry Verdi’s message; unfortunately, on this afternoon the soloists seemed not quite ready for the task at hand, either because they had not warmed up sufficiently before the performance or because they had been miscast. 

Soprano Hui He was more in command later in the work - especially in the final movement, the “Libera me.” Tenor Giorgio Berrugi also improved as he went along, and was especially successful in the more lyric passages. From the bass in this work, I prefer a heavier and darker sound than Ain Anger was able to provide. He was especially weak in the chilling “Mors stupebit” section.

The vocal range of the mezzo-soprano role is all too easily covered by Verdi’s chorus and orchestra in this work; Marianne Cornetti (photo:right) whose voice is much bigger than that of the other three soloists, used this strength to good effect.

Special kudos to the members of the all-volunteer Dallas Symphony Chorus. Named Director of the chorus in 2010, Joshua Habermann has shown that he can successfully maintain the high standard set by former director David R. Davidson. Jaap van Zweden needed only to look in the direction of sopranos or tenors to elicit the most remarkable results; each member of the chorus seemed supremely attentive to every move the conductor made. The results were glorious.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with Maestro van Zweden on the podium, is a world-class orchestra. Here, the strings phrased with unanimity and myriad colors, and the wind soloists made even short phrases a wonder to hear. The “Dies Irae" and “Tuba mirum" provide a field day for the brass and the DSO musicians played their hearts out. Verdi requires four trumpets in the orchestra and four more ‘somewhere else.’ On this occasion the second four were stationed in a small balcony above the chorus on the right-hand side of the stage. The solution was a good one and the effect was thrilling.

Thundrous "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) Shakes the Rafters!
The key element in the “Dies Irae" is the bass drum, a master stroke on Verdi’s part. After ten powerful opening bars in 4/4 time, Verdi repeats the pattern, this time with the bass drum contributing tremendous fortissimo thwacks on the second and fourth beats. Principal percussionist Doug Howard recently showed what he could do with the famous hammer blows in the Mahler Sixth and he outdid himself in the Verdi. I have never heard these bass drum notes carried off with such power and depth. Very likely the acoustics of the Meyerson contributed to that effect as well. Whatever the explanation I suspect that Verdi would have loved the sound.

In addition to the “Dies Irae" and the “Tuba mirum,” there is another passage in the Messa da Requiem that brass players look forward to with either keen anticipation or dread, depending on their competence. This is the passage featuring rapid, fortissimo chromatic ascending and descending scales at the end of the “Sanctus.” To say that the “Sanctus” was electrifying in this performance would be an understatement.

The overall impression left by this performance was of a profoundly moving journey taken through the mysteries of both life and death. Jaap van Zweden last conducted the Messa da Requiem in Dallas in 2008. Let’s hope Dallas music-lovers won’t have to wait another six years for a repeat experience.

For something more…
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has just announced details of its 2014-2015 season. There are some very positive developments. It was a mistake to cut back the number of weeks devoted to classical music performances, and that mistake will be rectified next season. The “classical favorites” policy for the current season has also been modified. There will be a number of new works by Rihm, Rouse, Bates and Dallas composer Chase Dobson. Van Zweden will conduct two major Mahler symphonies, the Third and the Ninth, as well as the Bruckner Fourth, the Bernstein Third, and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

There will likely also be a new work from 19-year old Conrad Tao (photo:right) who has been named Artist-in-Residence for the 2014-15 season. Tao’s duties have not been explained in detail but they will include appearing as piano soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Another major personnel addition is the appointment of Karina Canellakis, a former Berlin Philharmonic violinist with a master’s degree in conducting from Juilliard, as assistant conductor. Her mentors have included Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert and Bernard Haitink.

The DSO also announced the inaugural “Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival” which will conclude the season in May, 2015. This is planned as an international multi-disciplinary festival involving other arts groups in Dallas. Not many details yet, but the theme of the first festival is “Destination: America” honoring and celebrating artists who came to America over the years. Presumably, composers so celebrated would include Schoenberg, Weill and Stravinsky, among others. One of the concerts initially listed as part of this festival is an all-Bernstein program. As far as I know, Bernstein was American-born and educated. Not clear at this point how he and his music relate to this theme, and I have never heard Bernstein described as an “American impresario,” in the words of the DSO season brochure.

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