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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Concert Review: Berlioz Requiem Tears the Roof Off

Robert Spano. Photo by Andrew Eccles.
Of all the major settings of the Latin Mass for the Dead, the one by Berlioz presents the thorniest problems for the conductor. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, Robert Spano and the Orchestra of St. Luke's met those challenges with a roof-raising performance of the Berlioz Requiem, to celebrate this year's Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop.

Written in 1837, the Berlioz Requiem requires immense forces to depict the Day of Judgement. In addition to a large orchestra and massive, multi-sectional chorus, Berlioz requires sixteen kettledrums and four brass bands, stationed in different parts of the hall. In this case, they were stationed in the first and second tiers of Carnegie Hall, two on each side. In other words, in addition to all his other musical innovations, Berlioz was one of the first composers to write spatial music--a technique developed in the 20th century by such diverse artists as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pink Floyd.

The climax of this work comes early with the Tuba Mirum, a depiction of the sounding of the Last Trumpet from the Book of Revelation. As the brass blare out the wrath of God, the sound carries across the void and is tossed from group to group, whirling around the audience's head in counterpart with the pounding of the bass drum and the hammering timpani. The audience is literally in the middle of the events from the last book of the Bible: a profound, if deafening experience.

Mr. Spano focused his energies on the orchestra and choristers before him: four groups assembled: the Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus, the Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School, the Concorde Vocal Ensemble, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. The energetic conductor, who is celebrating his tenth year as head of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, seemed to have eyes in the back of his head--he didn't turn around once in the 90-minute performance.

Throughout the performance, the choristers popped up and down from their tiered seating as needed. Their singing had the mark of good sacred choral music--it made you believe in something higher thant the notes of the paper. Particularly moving were the hushed asides, in which the decidedly secular Berlioz uses every trick in his toolbox to contemplate the mysteries of the beyond. Tenor Thomas Cooley sang with warmth and power during the Sanctus. Perched above the brass bands in the Dress Circle, he was a literal voice from on high.

The St. Luke's forces provided expert accompaniment. The strings and woodwinds balanced well with the legion of kettledrums and brass, the shouts of glorious orchestral noise providing contrast with the work's most lyrical, reflective passages Even if the spatial and practical issues of the performance caused some of the brass antiphonal passages to go slightly awry, the work lost none of its impact.

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