Singing Verdi’s Requiem: a Quasi-Review

Over the past weekend, I had the very good fortune of performing Verdi’s Requiem with my friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra, under the baton of Roberto Abbado. And without further ado, let me say that I absolutely loved it.

It was one of those wonderful experiences where a great piece of music, a great conductor, a great group of performers, and a great audience come together to create a wonderfully satisfying whole. Together, we went on a amazing journey that touched us all deeply.

Let me tell you about it. 

* * *

To begin, let me back up and say a few words about the rehearsal leading up to the performances. Traditionally, we in the Chorale work though the music on our own as an ensemble beforehand, and only meet with the conductor the actual week of the performances. As this was the first time many of us had worked with Maestro Abbado, we took extra care to master his performance markings and notes, and arrived at our first conductor rehearsal ready to show our stuff.

And we did. We ran through the first few pages right through, so Abbado could get a sense of our sound and how we were approaching the work.

And then he stopped.

What happened next was wonderful, and wonderfully inspirational. He set the score down and said, “The technique is all there. It is perfect. But it’s not quite the right character, yet. Let me give you a sense of this work—how we see this as Italians, and how we see our relationship to God.” We then got an impromptu masterclass that distilled a lifetime of learning, culture and experience into a few short minutes. He talked about the music, of course, but really hammered home why the music mattered.

We were riveted.

When he had finished, we launched into those pages again… and really went to work. We spent a good half-hour just on those first few pages, with Abbado again and again focusing on the emotion of the words and music. And my God, we wrenched every ounce of emotion and drama out of those notes. Capturing not just a dynamic level, but a musical characterization. A color, not just a timbre.

And we were just getting started. Having established his vision for the work, he dove into the remaining sections with the same passion; he made sure the technical details had emotional meaning and resonance, so that the performance touched the audience members’ hearts as well as their minds. And he did so in such vivid detail—the man must have burned through an entire thesaurus of words to capture the emotion he was looking for.

And his words were not just colorful, they were insightful.  Just one example. At one point, in the hugely demanding fugue of the “Libera Me,” he leaned back and remarked, “It is perfect, but it is too… too much scherzando. It is like a Scherzo movement in a symphony. The notes need to be long enough that each one contains the entire drama, each one contains the entire wrath of God.” He had it right on—we were so focused on nailing the complex rhythms of that section that we were inadvertently making it spritely… as if it were a dance. We were being dazzling instead of terrifying.

Abbado also provided vividly-drawn metaphors to explain what he was looking for. I think our collective favorite was when he was trying to get more fire into our “Dies Irae:”

“You have a mighty cathedral, over in St. Paul. You have a mighty basilica here in Minneapolis. Right here, right at this moment, you are the Voice of God. I want both those churches to tremble down to their very foundations!”

In the end, it was clear that he had something to say about this work… a clear vision. Plus, he had absolute faith that we had the chops to bring his vision to life. It was hard work getting everything right, but it was exhilarating work—the kind of work we singers revel in.

* * *

And let me say, our work paid off… those concerts were phenomenal.

One of the things I appreciated was the range of the performances. As I mentioned in my preview of the concert, Verdi’s Requiem is primarily known for its loud, dramatic moments… and we had those in spades. I don’t know that the “Dies Irae” section has ever sounded so terrifying. This preview clip from the rehearsals provides some indication of the holy thunder we unleashed; it also highlights the heroic efforts of percussionist Brian Mount, who at one point was clobbering two bass drums at once. Additional kudos to the brass section that created a wall of sound that literally was rattling our ribcages. And let us not forget Roma Duncan… with her dramatic, fiery piccolo playing, she probably earned her entire year’s salary at these performances alone. Throw on top of that 150 voices who were singing to rattle the foundations of both Minneapolis’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and…

…well, if the real Day of Judgment isn’t as awe-inspiring as we depicted it, I’m going to be disappointed.

But in many ways, it was the unbelievably hushed music that was the true marvel of the performances. Trust me, no one does hushed music like we do. In the work’s opening measures, the strings were playing so softly that even we on stage had to strain to hear them… a volume level that we singers matched seconds later with our terrified calls of “requiem… requiem.” At that moment, and in the dramatic pauses that followed, I know the hair on my arms was standing on end, and I don’t think I was alone. Likewise, the final lines of “libera me”… magically soft, but incredibly intense.

And there was such lyricism, too! My God, the sweeping cello entrance in the “Offertorium” was gorgeous! There were similar moments throughout the work, which helped give it richness and contrast—the clarinets had many moments like these, as did the flutes. And that brief, but stunning solo line that concertmaster Erin Keefe played! Absolutely gorgeous.

And my heartiest congratulations to the four soloists: Julianna Di Giacomo, Tamara Mumford, Jean François Borras, and Riccardo Zanellato. They were deeply committed to their parts—providing intense drama without ever crossing the line into garishness. For example, the broken silences as bass Riccardo Zanellato murmured out “Mors stupebit” were absolutely perfect. Soprano Juliana Di Giacomo was similarly spectacular in the terrified opening of the “Libera me,” vividly conveying the awe and terror of the moment.

Tenor Jean François Borras’s radiant “Ingemisco” solo was worth the price of admission. And mezzo Tamara Mumford had not just a gorgeous tone, but a wonderful range… sailing on the top notes but still having a wonderfully rich lower register, too.

Moreover, the four voices were perfectly matched; the duets Julianna and Tamara, for example, were breathtaking. What a brilliant bit of casting—especially since Tamara was a late replacement, filling in for Anke Vondung, who had to withdraw for health reasons.

But there was a final, critical component to these concerts that really helped them soar—the audience. Of course they were attentive throughout the performance… but it was the audience’s reaction at the very, very end of the work that will stay with me.

After rising to a white-hot cry of terror, the music falls back upon itself for the final moments. We murmur a hushed, suspenseful prayer: “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death! Deliver me… deliver me….” And then fade to utter silence. After a cutoff that was nearly imperceptible in its delicacy, Abbado held his hands unwavering… waiting as the last echoes of the sound vanished and those words penetrated into our very souls.

And he waited.

And waited.

And slowly dropped his hands.

And still… absolute silence.

No one moved, to break the spell of that transcendent, final chord. It was only after 30 seconds passed that the crowd tentatively broke into applause.

In that shared silence, we shared something, together. It was a communal moment in all senses of the word—and one that was all the more magical because we shared it live and in person.

It was an amazing finish… worthy of the amazing music that preceded it.

* * *

In the end, these concerts more than earned the rave reviews they received in both the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. And as a whole, this experience reminded me again of how grateful I am to be part of this amazing, musical community.  Thank you all!





6 thoughts on “Singing Verdi’s Requiem: a Quasi-Review

  1. What beautiful writing. The post gives me the magical feeling that I experienced from the chorus all over again. Although, backstage after the performance, I was told that the silence was a full 45 seconds. A spell that no one wanted to be the one to break. An experience I will never forget. Thank you Scott Chamberlain.


    • Thanks for the comment! And to be honest, for the pause at the end, I split the difference between the two performances (22 seconds on Friday, 45 seconds on Saturday). But whatever the duration, those silences were absolutely magical.

      Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  2. It was ironic that the Tribune’s photo displayed so prominently the SPCO’s two top violinists. I’m guessing extra musicians were needed to perform this massive work. I must say, it sounded fantastic on the radio.


  3. Pingback: Verdi’s Requiem: A Preview | Mask of the Flower Prince

  4. Pingback: 2015: A Year in Review | Mask of the Flower Prince

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