Pre-concert notes were given by Amy Kaiser, director of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus. She is a goddess to me. She can get that chorus to function as a single instrument with unbelievable dynamic range, crisp entrances and cutoffs, balance and blend ... And she gave the choral perspective as well as the orchestral perspective on the piece.
Verdi. Opera. We would see in our program notes, she said, that "the music of this Requiem Mass is quite thoroughly operatic." Kaiser begged to disagree, but only somewhat. She said that he introduced quasi-sacred elements into his theatrical music in the same way that he used dramatic style in this Requiem, so that it was always a blend with Verdi - a balance between the peaceful contrapuntal structure of church music at the time, and the soaring emotionality of opera.
Oh goodie, I thought <sarcasm font>. Opera. This is gonna be a long night with no intermission.
Kaiser pointed out that this piece calls for a huge orchestra, huge sound; at which point I looked at the very crowded stage and the extra level built onto the conductor's podium so everyone could see him. Yikes! There would be four trumpets in the balcony as well as four onstage; and percussionist John Kasica reportedly has a fitness training routine to play this piece, because he has to bang the shit out of two enormous bass drums simultaneously. "If you sit where you can see him, it's worth watching," she said.
It turned out I couldn't see the drums, but I could see his face and his shoulders when he raised his arms to strike. (His face was very red.)
There was a stocky, friendly man next to me who wanted to chat. Had I ever heard this piece before? Nope. Not really a fan of opera, but we'll see how it goes. "Well, I'm Italian," he said, meaning I guess that all Italians naturally like opera. "Do you like choral music? Have you heard any other Masses? I think you won't be disappointed." His enthusiasm helped me prepare with more anticipation than dread.
The beginning - the Requiem and Kyrie - is more contemplative, structured, churchlike. It begins with strings playing like a breath of breeze, so softly you're not sure who's playing. I had my eye on principal cellist Daniel Lee. He didn't seem to be moving the bow, but he definitely had it raised so I figured he was doing some sort of telepathic vibration thing.
As the strings swelled, the chorus came in, alternately soothing and stirring. It was stunning. And it was followed by the Kyrie, on which the soloists handed off "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison" as if they had a single voice
Oh yeah, there were soloists. They were all a little more vibrato-laden - operatic - than I usually like, but they blended beautifully and were perfect for the setting. I think I liked the tenor's voice best, but I couldn't see him much - the conductor blocked my view - so I never had a chance to fall in love with the visual performance. Both men were in tuxes, of course, and the mezzo soprono was in black with a sheer black wrap covering her arms. (I wondered if it was deliberate, funeral clothing for a Requiem.) So Angel Blue, the soprano soloist, really stood out in her strapless green gown. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
In fact, I almost forgot to watch the conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who at 80 years old conducted the entire Requiem from memory. Ms. Kaiser said that he did have a score at rehearsal just to double check himself before telling the tenors they were wrong - which they were. When I did remember to look at Maestro, he was conducting without baton (it was a choral part) and I wondered what he had done with his baton, since there was no music stand for him to stash it on. I was lucky enough to see the tenor soloist hand it back to him when he was ready to bring the orchestra back into play.
Cellist Bjorn Ranheim is quoted in the program notes: "Many musicians talk about all that Frühbeck manages to convey just through his left hand. For a conductor, the key to everything that's non-rhythmic -- nuances of phrasing and musicality, the sense of direction and line -- all of that comes from the left hand." So I tried to watch his left hand, but I kept getting swept away in the music. It really is a dramatic and theatrical work, with fortissimo passages cut off so abruptly that you can hear the echo in the gilded moldings throughout the hall.
But as always it's the fugal works that I liked best - especially the Sanctus, which Kaiser billed as a "huge double fugure for the chorus." They were tossing out motifs like jugglers.
As I exited the building, I ran into some of the male chorus members coming out the backstage door. They seemed surprised when I thanked them.