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Monday, January 19, 2015

Concert Review: The Power and the Glory

The New York Philharmonic presents Verdi's Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert. Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.

Ever since its premiere in 1874, Giuseppe Verdi's setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead has been the subject of controversy and debate. Premiered in a church but planned for the concert hall, this work fuses Catholic liturgy with the awesome power of Verdi's dramatic music, creating a jet-fueled version of this very solemn text. On Friday night, New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert led a starry cast of soloists in his first New York performances of this enormoys work, the second of three scheduled this week.

The performance featured the Philharmonic, the New York Choral Artists (under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt) and a starry cast of soloists including bass Eric Owens, mezzo Lilli Paasikivi and soprano Angela Meade, the bel canto specialist who has made her reputation with the bel canto works of Donizetti and Bellini. Rounding out the quartet was Russell Thomas, an eleventh-hour substitute for the ill Brandon Jovanovich.

Mr. Gilbert's interpretation on Friday night was electric. The opening Requiem aeternam built slowly, with the first appearance of Verdi's trademark melodies opening the doors for a finely sung Kyrie eleison This momentum paid off in the Dies irae, launching the Sequence with hammer-blow chords and thundering brass. This prophecy of humanity's downfall pointed the way forward to Verdi's late operatic style , as Mr. Gilbert whipped up a tornado of sound.

These performances represent a further exploration of Verdi for Ms. Meade. Although she had some rocky moments in the first movement, the voice settled and she sang with flexibility, power and yes, real emotion in key passages. Her instrument is developing on three fronts, with floated, gliding top notes, a strong middle register and most astonishing of all, the difficult low chest notes that Verdi demands of his singer in the most taxing part of the Libera me.



Finnish-born mezzo Lilli Paasikivi is no stranger to working with Alan Gilbert. That partnership paid dividends in her part of the Sequence. The big solo in the Liber scriptum,  conveyed the majesty of the Lord's throne with finely shaded tone and a bright sound that never hardened or crumbled before the huge orchestral assault. Her duet with Ms. Meade  in the Recordare was both ominous and harmonious.

Forced into the unenviable position of last-minute replacement, Russell Thomas sang with panache. He followed Mr. Gilbert carefully, bringing bright, clean tone and thrust to the Ingemisco solo. He was even better in the tenor passage of the Hostias. Also, Mr. Thomas was an admirable contributor in ensemble passages like the Lux Aeterna, his voice contrasting well with Ms. Paasikivi and Mr. Owens.

Eric Owens also made a strong contribution in a performance that might be interpreted as something of a comeback for this American bass. His interpretation of the Mors stupebit was chilling. He sang the notes with a hushed sound of terror and awe, his vocal delivery all the more remarkable for its haggard, gray quality. In the Confutatis his full voice emerged with a dark and muscular power and flexibility, a sound that stayed wit hthe listener through all of the later movements.

The chorus is essential in this work. Careful preparation and musical knowledge of the New York Choral Artists was evident throughout. Their shining moment was the Sanctus, a big double fugue that Mr. Gilbert led with Beethovenian energy and enthusiasm. Also stunning was the a capella central passage of the Libera me where Ms. Meade sang accompanied by the chorus alone. In a work full of memorable moments and stark pleas for the fate of humanity in the face of an implacable and angry God, this was the most stunning part of the whole performance.
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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.