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Friday, April 4, 2014

Concert Review: Judgment on Newark

The NJSO takes on the Verdi Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hanging in the balance: conductor Jacques Lacombe.
Photo by Philippe Champoux for Colbert Artists.
Great things can happen in Newark.

On Thursday afternoon, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Montclair State University Chorale tested that maxim with an ambitious program: playing the Verdi Requiem at a matinee audience mainly comprised of senior citizens bussed to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center from various retirement communities around the state. The concert, conducted by NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe was the first of three performances of this mighty choral work, a composition that saw the famed Italian opera composer branching out into sacred choral music.

Performing this setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead requires a certain evangelist spirit. One does not necessarily have to believe in the wrath of God, the judgment of the wicked or the yawning pits of Hell. What is needed is an absolute, unshakable faith in the power of voice and orchestra to deliver dramatic thrills equivalent of any staged opera. The Requiem has been called Verdi's "greatest opera", a work where the composer leaves the struggles of ordinary humans aside for a moment to grapple with apocalyptic imagery and the question of what happens at the end of the world.

Leading the struggle was Mr. Lacombe, who chose a methodical, detail-oriented approach that served well in the opening pages of the first movement. A hushed, dramatic beginning for chorus and strings led the way into the dramatic first statement by the four soloists. Mr. Lacombe brought details of this score into sharp focus, emphasizing the texture of the work and always choosing to luxuriate in the more lyric passage of the score.

That aesthetic, however did not prevent the Dies Irae and the following Sequence from being a harrowing experience. Here, the fortissimo bangs of percussion hit like a boxer's right hook, and the offstage trumpets (heard at the start of the Tuba Mirum made good use of the friendly acoustics of Prudential Hall. Although the orchestra and chorus threatened to derail when thundering at full blast, Mr. Lacombe led a successful and coordinated assault.

Following this assault it was the singers turn. Mezzo Janara Kellerman sang the Liber scriptus as a big solo that might have belonged in Don Carlos. Also effective: the performances of tenor Russell Thomas in his solo, sung with squillo that cut as cleanly as one of God's trumpets. Bass Peter Volpe was woollier, with a wide vibrato but still delivered the Mors stupendis  and the Confutatis maledictis with appropriate gravitas.

With its visions of judgment and hell-fire, the Sequence is the most dramatic part of the Requiem. Verdi the melodist takes over in the following Offertorio as the four solo voices appear without the chorus. Here, Mr. Lacombe proved a shrewd judge of singers as this well-chosen quartet blended smoothly against the orchestral accompaniment. The chorus came thundering back for the Sanctus and the singers formed smaller groups for the Agnus Dei and Lux aeterna that followed.

Faith and drama come together in the Libera me, a virtuoso solo for soprano, chorus and orchestra that concludes the Requiem with a plea for  salvation, not just for the soloist but for all of humanity. Here, Marianne Fiset's sweet, lyric soprano was an excellent advocate for humanity before the tribunal, singing with beautiful tone laced with the right notes of pure terror. This was epic stuff from a singer who may go on to greater things: a performance that worked on an artistic and yes, religious level.

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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.