For the first performance following the League of American Orchestras’ opening plenary session (“Orchestras R/Evolution” based on the conference theme: It’s time to take on the future”), the combined forces of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its stellar chorus reminded the capacity crowd just why orchestras still matter in the twenty-first century.
Music director Robert Spano was back on the podium after a slipped disc forced the cancellation of a recent Toronto Symphony Orchestra engagement (cross-reference below) and a quartet of wide-ranging soloists graced the stage to tackle some of the most challenging “roles” in the repertoire. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the enduring genius of Giuseppe Verdi whose Requiem Mass has a host of junctures that could wake the dead or provide lasting comfort and compassion to those who have lost a loved one. (As has the orchestral community with the recent passing of Ernest Fleischmann—long-time executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—to whom the concert was dedicated.)
With a runtime of eighty-four minutes and no intermission, the notion that the attention span of today’s audience is shrinking in concert with its numbers could be tested in real time. To the credit of both the ~300 committed performers and the over 1,700 patrons, there were many breathtaking/catching moments where only the discreet mechanical blowing of the ambient air system—oddly calming in itself—could be savoured with the rarest of commodities: shared silence.
Happily/sadly/maddeningly, a cellphone did invade the white sanctuary of high art (ringing 6 times no less), but just ahead of the haunting “Agnus Dei.” Spano patiently waited out the intrusion hoping that the electronic pitches wouldn’t inadvertently modulate the solo, seul voices (they did not).
No applause-between-movements or sections can be reported—unbridled bombast or serene quiet were greeted equally with engaged minds and spirits while the hands were left to rustle programs (that too was kept to a respectable minimum).
Only one stare-down was needed to truncate a cadence-by-cadence commentary emanating from a nearby couple old enough to know better. (Guess who yelled too many “Brava” after the final “libera me” had melted into the collective consciousness?)
So far, the total orchestra-concert experience (which we heard earlier had to be rethought from top to bottom if our most precious art form is to continue, much less thrive) seemed to be alive and well in the city of Coke, CNN and the Braves (all brands that show no apparent signs of decline—thank goodness BP has its largest U.S. presence in Houston: What arts organization would like to be sponsored by such a reckless polluter?).
Which brings us to how the music was performed.
Without question, the star of the performance was the chorus. From the first, whispered flipped “r” to the final, ideally-supported vanishing vowel, there was choral music-making of the finest order from the 200-strong choristers. Their obviously fastidious preparation by director Norman Mackenzie, paid huge artistic dividends: collective phrasing, uniformly precise rhythm and nearly all final consonants being released as one gave Spano a better result than he conducted.
From the opening sotto voce—only an operatic master such as Verdi could craft such a dramatic start to a work based on religious texts—the delayed beat forced the ASO principals to become assistant conductors as they tried to figure out—exactly—just when to begin their ethereal lines. Quite often they succeeded, but once the soloists entered the fray, the voice-to-orchestra/chorus ensemble frequently became uncomfortable, creating more tension than imagined.
When at full cry—famously in the stunning heat of the “Dies Irae”—the decibel count even surpassed the electrically charged Evita unleashed last week in Stratford (cross-reference below), yet the best bass drum part ever written was often ahead of schedule (micro seconds to be sure, but surprising/disappointing all the same), adding uncertain punch to the overall effect that had only one dynamic: very, very loud.
Confession time: having been weaned on the Georg Solti/Vienna Philharmonic recording (featuring Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, and Martti Talvela), it’s very difficult to duplicate much less surpass those stellar forces. In the softer sections, there was much to admire from the podium. Still, many of the magical lines suffered a lack of horizontal shaping—save and except for the “Sanctus” where Spano finally let his left hand speak for itself: the difference was palpable.
Most distressing was the opening of the “Offertorium” where the time signature took a dozen measures to discern. Spano has so many gifts (his tempi were a marvel in every instance) and such formidable musicians (only the stratosphere caused any distress from the solo-violin desks and the tutti cellos as they entered the melodic heavens—the surround-sound trumpet calls were very twenty-first century) that it’s hoped that, similar to Solti or the likes of Kubelik and Ancerl, Spano will beat time less and “show the music” more.
The opening “Kyries” from the soloists are like a mini audition—every entry establishes the benchmark from which all further contributions will be measured. Considering just those initial declamations on their own, bass Burak Bilgili was the early favourite; both soprano Christine Brewer and tenor Dimitri Pittas had some slight difficulty navigating the short-step descending intervals while mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby demonstrated commendable style and power.
Everyone improved as time went on.
Brewer carefully paced herself and delivered an absolutely marvellous high B-flat in the climactic octave leap. Knowing this, Maultsby might have held back a tad—particularly in the “Agnus Dei” duet—as their balance never mirrored that of the chorus. Pittas had some exquisite solo turns (notably “Ingemisco”) but led his colleagues into tonality purgatory in the first, extended a capella attempt (“Lacrymosa”). Indeed, many of the unaccompanied solo ensembles were wont to stray out of the arena of pitch-certainty, creating another level of artistic unease to the demanding score. Bilgili’s “Confutatis” was appropriately emotional and dramatic.
All of that said—much of it quibbles in an ocean of determined, capable artistic expression—those assembled for this experience stood and showered their delight over several curtain calls. With undeniably enthusiastic reactions such as this, surely the future prognosis for full halls and balanced books is healthy. If the music is having its desired effect, then the support necessary to continue and flourish must follow in kind. JWR