The pounding thud of the brass and timpani that send in the beginning of Verdi’s “Dies irae” paralyzes me every time.
“Dies irae” is the movement that usually comes to mind when people think of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. Loud, thundering and spine tingling, it is nothing short of the meaning behind the title of the whole piece, a Latin lamentation addressed to the dead.
But Requiem is so much more. In fact, the majority of Verdi’s masterpiece is quite melodic and haunting.
Across the movements, Verdi leads his musicians to explore themes of worthlessness, mercy and sin.
In the acoustics of the Orpheum, voices began to echo like phantoms. “Requiem,” the UBC Singers and Choral Union breathed in unison as they performed the piece in its entirety for two nights on Friday and Saturday.
The concerts were conducted by VSO’s Maestro Otto Tausk who led the ensemble with a mighty hand. The orchestra was joined by soloists soprano Miina-Liisa Värela, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor David Pomeroy and bass-baritone Derek Welton.
Though tenor Pomeroy was feeling unwell on Friday, he delivered his parts with unwavering strength. Benjamin Butterfield took his place on stage for Saturday’s performance.
Verdi composed Requiem to commemorate the death of Italian novelist-poet Alessandro Manzoni whose work and legacy touched Verdi poetically and politically.
In its early days back in the 1870s, the operatic nuance of the choir’s score was widely perceived as cheap, irreverent, atheistic and anything but a Gregorian chant, giving the piece a somewhat controversial status.
But music operates in trends, and the post-mortem success of Verdi’s work reveals it to be a rare piece that synthesizes the thrill of the opera with a symphonic score while upholding the sagacious status of a choral masterwork.
Verdi’s Requiem must be heard at least once.
The choir and soloists interweaved in an arc-like imitative polyphony in the first movement, going from ahush to a roar.
The second movement “Dies irae” is rushed in with a flurry of strings and brass. If any part of the concert was meant to go as planned, it was this movement, and the ensemble did not disappoint.
Triumphant and dark, the choir sang like an angry sinned giant. The vocal ranges layered together melodically.
The soloists conversed like living souls against an opaque sea of the haunting choir, always in parallel, never merged. In “Offertorio,” they sang of extending bread and wine to the Holy Communion before the perfect chaos of a fugue in “Sanctus.”
In “Agnus Dei,” the soloists and choir interweaved major and minor octaves, finally finding a mutual ground. The tactic was like a push and pull force mediated by the orchestra. It culminates in the evocation of a major chord to end the melancholy.
In the final movement, the souls have reached eternal light.
And like a blessed lullaby, Requiem drifted away with a dying fermata, Tausk’s reins bringing the ensemble to a halt like a tired vehicle.
“Libera me domine de morte æterna,” soprano Värela pleaded. As the final words loosely translate to English, “deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death.”