Sunday, March 27, 2011

Music review: Verdi 'Requiem' marks important moment for Master Chorale, Lynn

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

By Greg Stepanich

Time was,‭ ‬and not all that long ago,‭ ‬that the only way South Florida could hear the Verdi Requiem in concert was to wait for the Florida Philharmonic to schedule it or hope that a big touring ensemble would put it on.

This year,‭ ‬there have been two major local performances of this‭ ‬1874‭ ‬masterwork:‭ ‬Once in January at a concert by the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra,‭ ‬with high-profile soloists including Dolora Zajick,‭ ‬and this week in four concerts by the Master Chorale of South Florida,‭ ‬accompanied by the Lynn Philharmonia.

You wouldn‭’‬t expect a student group such as the Lynn conservatory orchestra to be quite as polished as the opera professionals,‭ ‬and by extension,‭ ‬for the performance as a whole to be on that level.‭ ‬And while indeed‭ ‬it wasn‭’‬t up to quite the same caliber,‭ ‬Saturday‭’‬s performance by the Master Chorale was exciting,‭ ‬engrossing,‭ ‬and completely faithful to Verdi‭’‬s compositional aesthetic.‭

It lacked certain subtleties of interpretation,‭ ‬but in every other important respect this was a strong reading of the‭ ‬Requiem,‭ ‬and its successful performance over the course of the four concerts marks a major advance for South Florida classical music-making.

To begin with,‭ ‬there was the orchestra‭ ‬itself,‭ ‬which was excellent‭ (‬and augmented by adult professionals‭)‬.‭ ‬There were two or three noticeable flubs in precisely the places where most‭ ‬orchestras‭ ‬have difficulty:‭ ‬The offstage trumpet passage‭ ‬in the‭ ‬Tuba mirum,‭ ‬which quickly righted itself,‭ ‬and the massed cello opening of the‭ ‬Offertorium,‭ ‬which‭ ‬had‭ ‬the usual intonation problems on the climb up.‭ ‬But here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬the cellists rapidly unified things when it came time for the main theme.‭ ‬

By and large,‭ ‬this was an orchestra with good string ensemble,‭ ‬strong solo work from winds and brass,‭ ‬and‭ ‬emphatic percussion.‭ ‬It was an orchestra that clearly was familiar with the music,‭ ‬and was able to play with impressive dynamic range,‭ ‬from the hushed tremolandi that introduce the‭ ‬Hostias et preces tibi to the mighty whirlwind of the‭ ‬Dies irae.

Conductor Albert-George Schram led the combined forces of chorale and orchestra with precision and thorough professionalism.‭ ‬Saturday night,‭ ‬sudden shifts in dynamics were right on the money,‭ ‬as were virtually all the entrances and endings,‭ ‬including such tricky moments as the‭ ‬delicate switch to A major from A minor in the opening Requiem movement.

His tempos were largely on the swift side,‭ ‬and in some cases,‭ ‬a little too fast for comfort,‭ ‬particularly in the‭ ‬Confutatis section of the Sequence,‭ ‬when his insistence on driving the central three-note motif forward‭ ‬left his soloist too little time to breathe or give the aria enough impact.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Sanctus,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬while ably handled by the chorus,‭ ‬could have been slightly slower,‭ ‬and there were other,‭ ‬smaller moments when Schram might have‭ ‬been better served by a touch more deliberation.‭

And yet overall,‭ ‬he led the piece masterfully:‭ ‬His forces knew exactly what he wanted and when to give it to him,‭ ‬and they followed him admirably.‭

The soloists also did‭ ‬well,‭ ‬in varying degrees.‭ ‬Soprano Amanda Hall,‭ ‬a master‭’‬s student at Yale,‭ ‬had the freshest voice of the four,‭ ‬with a nice,‭ ‬full sound in her upper reaches and a warm,‭ ‬communicative approach‭ (‬particularly in the‭ ‬Recordare and the closing‭ ‬Libera me‭)‬.‭ ‬Some of her vibrato was rather wide,‭ ‬which was also true of mezzo Christin-Marie Hill.

Hill,‭ ‬a repeat Tanglewood fellow,‭ ‬has an unusual bronze quality‭ ‬to her voice‭ ‬that at its best is‭ ‬quite‭ ‬compelling‭ (‬Quid sum miser‭?)‬ and in its shakier moments‭ ‬Saturday night‭ ‬inclined to shrillness.‭ ‬She also snapped off the ends of her‭ ‬initial‭ ‬phrases in the‭ ‬Liber scriptus,‭ ‬no doubt in‭ ‬strict‭ ‬fidelity to the score,‭ ‬but the effect was‭ ‬odd,‭ ‬as though she had been cut off in mid-sentence.‭

Tenor Scott Ramsay demonstrated a very pleasant,‭ ‬lightly colored voice that had muscle when it needed it,‭ ‬such as in the high B-flat that closes the‭ ‬Ingemisco.‭ ‬He chose a very soft voice for the‭ ‬Hostias,‭ ‬but while that was effective for the text,‭ ‬a little more power would have brought out the tenoristic thrill of the melody better.

Bass Wayne Shepperd has a friendly,‭ ‬baritonal voice that blended well with the other soloists but was somewhat less effective on its own.‭ ‬Without sepulchral tones,‭ ‬it‭’‬s hard to make the big pauses Schram called for in the‭ ‬Mors stupebit work all that well,‭ ‬and as mentioned before,‭ ‬the too-fast pace of the‭ ‬Confutatis‭ ‬did Shepperd no favors.‭

For its part,‭ ‬the Master Chorale‭ (‬the former Florida Philharmonic chorus‭) ‬showed the benefits of careful drill in the way the group sang the exact rhythm on the words‭ ‬Qui salvando salvas gratis,‭ ‬as well as the closing triplet on the words‭ ‬Libera me.‭ ‬Its sound was full and hefty,‭ ‬and the balances between men and women were good.

It was also gratifying to hear the chorus sing a piece that gave it so much to do.‭ ‬Many of the big works the chorale has done in recent years have been much bigger workouts for soloists than the chorus,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s been hard to gauge exactly how well the group sings.‭ ‬The Verdi Requiem,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬showed that it‭’‬s capable of handling difficult fugal writing such as the‭ ‬Te decet hymnus and‭ ‬Sanctus,‭ ‬and that it is able to offer a blemish-free unison line such as in the‭ ‬Agnus Dei.

‭ ‬Saturday‭’‬s concert was a crucial one for music development.‭ ‬The Lynn Philharmonia,‭ ‬which just‭ ‬20‭ ‬years ago was a string orchestra‭ ‬at the Harid Conservatory,‭ ‬is a skilled,‭ ‬agile assemblage that began this year tackling the Mahler Fifth and next year will take on John Corigliano‭’‬s First Symphony,‭ ‬a most demanding piece.‭ ‬True,‭ ‬it got some middle-aged help in the ranks for the Requiem,‭ ‬and its earlier concerts this season have been inconsistent,‭ ‬particularly in the brass sections.

But if you care about classical music in Palm Beach County,‭ ‬you‭’‬ll want to consider attending the last performance of the Requiem this afternoon at the Wold Center for the Performing Arts on the Lynn campus.‭ ‬Even five years ago,‭ ‬a performance of this work by student and community forces here would have been hard to imagine‭ ‬--‭ ‬Brahms or Faure,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬but‭ ‬Verdi,‭ ‬no.

Now,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬ambition for the arts here has been joined by serious accomplishment,‭ ‬and audience members today can see a chorale that has managed to remain standing for almost a decade despite the loss of the orchestra that originated it,‭ ‬and‭ ‬a symphonic ensemble‭ ‬that increasingly is providing fine training for its student members,‭ ‬as well as more satisfying concerts for its auditors.‭

This Verdi Requiem series is nothing short of a milestone,‭ ‬whatever its faults,‭ ‬and I feel certain the Lynn and Master Chorale communities‭ ‬will look back on these performances a few years hence and see that they marked the beginning of a newer,‭ ‬bigger era.‭

The Verdi Requiem will be performed at‭ ‬4‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬today at the Wold Center on the Lynn University campus.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$35-$50.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬237-9000‭ ‬for more information.

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