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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Concert Review: Famous Last Words, Revised

The New York Philharmonic offers a new version of Mozart's Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Bernard Labadie. Photo by David Cannon© 2013 Les Violins du Roy.
In March of this year, the New York Philharmonic offered The Bach Variations, an an entire month celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Not only did this festival remind concert-goers of this ensemble's skill with baroque music, it also provided opportunity for some lesser-known conductors to appear with the orchestra. One of them was Bernard Labadie, music director of Les Violons du Roy and a specialist in music from the baroque era. On Friday night, he conducted with a brisk, efficient energy, moving lightly on his feet and drawing dulcet tones from singers and ensemble.

Mr. Labadie returned to the Philharmonic last week with a program featuring a Bach cantata, an aria from Handel's oratorio Samson, and the orchestra's first performance of the Mozart Requiem in over a decade. This last is Mozart's final, unfinished musical testament, presented here for the first time in the new (1993) completion by musicologist Robert Levin.


For the first half of the evening, a wooden screen was erected across the great stage of Avery Fisher Hall in an effort to make the sound of the reduced orchestra bright and present in a hall better suited to Mahler and Shostakovich. This increased intimacy aided the performance of Bach's cantata  Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! and the following "Let the Bright Seraphim" from the Handel oratorio Samson.

The featured soloists were soprano Miah Persson and trumpeter Matthew Muckey.  Ms. Persson is known for her Mozart interpretations--and here she used that skill to provide emotion and fervor to the text. Playing piccolo trumpet, Mr. Muckey made his case as a potential heir to Philharmonic principal Philip Smith, who recently announced his plans to retire from the orchestra's ranks. They traded lines and echoed each other's melodies with flourishes virtuosity, following the baroque convention of expressing emotion through complex melodic development.

Mozart died while working on the Requiem in 1791, succumbing to fever in the middle of writing the Lacrymosa. (And no, he wasn't murdered--Amadeus is a work of clever fiction.) While most Philharmonic performances in the past have used the "standard" completion by Vienna composer Franz Xavier Süssmayr, (finished in the immediate wake of Mozart's death) this was the first to offer an alternate completion from musicologist Robert D. Levin first published in 1993.

A good performance of the Mozart Requiem can make the work break loose from its historical baggage and stand on its own merits. And for the most part, this was one, from the hushed Introit o the massed shout of the Kyrie. The Dies Irae was the highlight: starting with awed tone from the choir before giving way to the four vocal soloists (Ms. Persson, the mezzo Stephanie Blythe, tenor Frédéric Antoun and bass Andrew Foster-Williams) in the the Tuba Mirum. This famous passage was sung with power and lyric tone, with the singers melodic lines like heavenly trumpets. The New York Choral Society singers made the most of the mighty shout of "Confutatis! Maledictis!" expertly supported by the Philharmonic players.

Conducting he Requiem hinges on a balance between chorus, soloists and orchestra. Although one wished for more momentum and drive in the Sanctus, Mr. Labadie compensated in the delicate duet for high violins and voices at the start of the Benedictus. The last sections (featuring the new completion by Robert D. Levin) are supposed to be more "authentically Mozartean. Either way, this performance with Ms. Persson's final solo of the night (in the final Lacrymosa) still had the grace and power that one associates with the best performances of this remarkable work.
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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.