Grand opera of the dead: LA Master Chorale’s ‘Verdi Requiem’

Exploring every conceivable emotion related to death, Verdi’s monumental Requiem is one of the largest and most impressive works in both choral and orchestral music.  It keeps the audience at the edge of their seats, toes tapping, breath often bated, and heads nodding with each report of the bass drums.  But as great as the piece is, this concert was even better.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale served up two performances of Verdi’s choral masterpiece last weekend, and we attended the one on Saturday afternoon.  The house was nearly full, and anticipation was high.  But with the Chorale in top form and the orchestra tight as can be, we were not disappointed.

Issachah Savage, Morris Robinson, Michelle DeYoung and Amber Wagner take a moment together backstage.
Issachah Savage, Morris Robinson, Michelle DeYoung and Amber Wagner take a moment together backstage.

The soloists took their places between the orchestra and the chorus, a bit further away than I would have liked, but still making it easy to see them each time they stood for their sections.  This positioning certainly put them more directly into conductor Grant Gershon‘s sightlines, increasing communication, and there was no doubt that the performers were all in this together.  From each of the soloists’ first stunning entrances, we knew this was going to be a superb experience.

Soprano Amber Wagner is a revelation, with a rich voice that sails into the stratosphere with ferocity, delicate as sheer silk, but later slides into a throaty chest voice with equal grace.  Her performance was impressive throughout, and nearly flawless.  Even the one moment in the Libera me (approaching the end), where a high note broke a bit on the breath, actually set her up for a recovery that was more sensational than she had already achieved, and led her extraordinary voice into a finale that was so glorious it will long be remembered.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung started strong, and really hit her stride later, singing her magnificent “Liber scriptus” with lush sound, an imperious air and great musical sensitivity.  She took full ownership of her solo moments in the intense “Lacrymosa”, and it was during the Lux aeterna trio with the two men, at “In aeternam”, that we could best hear the full timbre of an excellent instrument.

Tenor Isaachah Savage has a cannon of a voice, with a sweet tone, shimmering like bright velvet in solo sections that are nothing less than heroic.  Yet he is quite musical, opening into high passages effortlessly, and working extremely well in ensemble passages as well.

Bass Morris Robinson, who was quite memorable in the recent production of Bellini’s Norma at LA Opera, is even more at home here, and clearly born to sing this music.  With a commanding presence and a sound as dark as a cave at midnight, his performance was emotional, dramatic and marked by both a thorough understanding of the work and the sheer joy of singing it.

2016-01-30_LAMC_GershonTogether and separately, the soloists stole the show, but did not diminish the extraordinary achievements that day of the LAMC Orchestra and of course, the LAMC.  Gershon was absolutely sure in his leadership, in total control, with a look of fixed determination on
his face.  The orchestra is full of individual talents, as we heard with the smooth and nearly anthropomorphic bassoon solo by William May, for instance.  But the large ensemble moved together as one large piece of textured fabric, undulating in a soft breeze, yet were able to wind together into a rattail whip when needed, to put the fear of God into us again.

That is the distinctive feature of Verdi’s signature choral work:  the Dies irae that returns for a total of three iterations, a heart-stopping, terrifying cry accompanied by the thunder of the bass drum.  The entire piece is huge, in-your-face, and becomes deeply personal.  The “Tuba mirum” trumpet fanfares in the Dies irae movement are soul-stirring, and the ecstatic, somehow playful Sanctus embodies gratitude.

What was so engrossing about this performance, however, is how the group took a great piece and executed it not only with skill, but with style, making the most of the fermatas, and the subtle rubato here and there.  The chorus was at their absolute best,  responding to orchestral statements with equal force; then coming together with 110 singers as one voice; then moving headlong into a rollicking fugue.  Being in the same room with all of that energy was a rush, and Gershon set up such a confident structure that he left room for true expression, all the way to the final unison “Libera me”, in the lockstep of a common heartbeat.

The audience was rapt throughout, sometimes forgetting themselves as they tapped feet, or even (to my left) tapped fingers on a metal railing.  It was all an expression that finally released into a thunderous and well-deserved standing ovation.

Now that’s an afternoon well-spent.

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

Next up for LAMC

Music of the Coal Miner“, March 6

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