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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Concert Review: Apocalypse At Last

The Philadelphia Orchestra plays Verdi's Requiem
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin begins his term
as the eighth music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Photo © 2011 The Rotterdam Philharmonic
Friday night on Broad Street found the Philadelphia Orchestra playing with renewed energy and purpose in Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. This was also the first subscription concert at the Kimmel Center in the term of new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The eighth conductor to hold this post, Mr. Nézet-Séguin has waited in the wings for two years, receiving a buildup in the press and orchestral marketing that would be hard for any conductor to live up to.

Happily, Giuseppe Verdi's 1874 Requiem allowed Mr. Nézet-Séguin the opportunity to combine his strengths in symphonic and operatic repertory. This 90-minute work, a setting of the Mass of the Dead by the most important opera composer of the 19th century brings the power and narrative drive of Verdi's operas to liturgical material, making the sacred text an energizing, earthy experience.

Working without benefit of a score, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proved to be an adept navigator of this weighty work. He provided clarity and a beauty of texture to the opening statement of Requiem aeternam and the powerful, aria-like Kyrie that followed, with strong contributions from his four soloists: soprano Marina Poplavskaya, mezzo Christine Rice, tenor Rolando Villazón and bass Mikhail Petrenko.


The conductor achieved terror with a huge burst of sonic energy in the Dies Irae, the work's most famous section. He was aided by a potent performance from his new orchestra, which sounded renewed and enthusiastic as they unleashed Verdi's particular brand of hellfire. Equally important: the stirring contribution from the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Princeton-based chorus frequently heard with the Philadelphians. This was a thrilling drama played for apocalyptic stakes.

In contrast to all this bombast stood the middle movements: the vocal ensemble writing of the Offertorio the complex, fugal Sanctus and the shimmering, finely divided strings that accompanied Ms. Poplavskaya and Ms. Rice in the Agnus Dei. Mr. Villazón and Mr. Petrenko also added to the Lux Aeterna,, the penultimate section of the work.

The final movement, Libera me is the earliest section of this work, planned by Verdi, as part of a project by multiple composers to commemorate the death of Gioachino Rossini. In it, Verdi squares his soprano off against the wrath of an unfeeling, uncaring God in a literal battle for the fate of humanity. This is one of the composer's finest musical achievements transforming the Requiem from a ceremonial work to a deeply human one.

Marina Poplavskaya has a bright, powerful soprano voice which can sing potent high notes but lacks warmth in its middle register. This, combined with a queenly stage manner made the Russian soprano an odd choice to plead for deliverance for mankind. However, the singer's long experience working with Mr. Nézet-Séguin stood her well in this movement, and the final bars (incorporating the return of the Dies irae soared.

As the last bars sounded, Mr. Nézet-Séguin stood stock still. The profound minute of solemn silence in Verizon Hall spoke more than the thunderous applause which followed. Philadelphia has its music director, and the road to the Orchestra's redemption may be shorter than anyone expected.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.