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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Concert Review: The Unquiet Dead

Christopher Rouse's Requiem opens Spring for Music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert and Christopher Rouse (with hands raised) surrounded by the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.
Ever since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart went to his grave without finishing his setting of the Mass for the Dead, the composition of a Requiem has been considered the crowning achievement of a career in composition. For Christopher Rouse, the first New York performance of his Requiem (at Monday's opening night concert of this year's Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall) is such an achievement: a culminating feat for one of America's most important modern composers.

As a model for his setting of the Requiem text, Mr. Rouse chose the Grande Messe des Morts by his hero Hector Berlioz as his model. There are some parallels between the two works. Mr. Rouse chose Berlioz' edition of the text, eliminating sections like the Libera Me and opting for heavy orchestration with an awful lot of percussion. However, he also drew inspiration from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, interleaving poetry in three different languages (mostly sung by a solo baritone) against the inexorable ritual of the Latin text. Here, the multi-lingual approach underlines the finality and universality of death, a grim message for this dark new century.

Baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo opened the work, standing under a spotlight and singing "Mid-Term Break" by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. (This is the first of many meditations on death that are added to Mr. Rouse's libretto.) His plaintive, powerful tone caressed and uplifted the text against sparse accompaniment,  His declamation was was answered by a hushed "Requiem aeternam"  from the Westminster Symphonic Choir, mysterious and dread-filled. The Kyrie followed as the lights were slowly raised, with Alan Gilbert guiding the choristers forward from the special extended podium added to the stage for this concert.

With the first notes of the Dies Irae, God showed up. Instead of Berlioz' sixteen-timpani assault, Mr. Rouse opted for massive sound clusters from the seven percussionists on duty. With each round of blast-beats coming in an off-rhythm, the initial effect was roughly equivalent to having a cathedral dropped on one's head.

Timpani were prominent, but so were kick drums, bass drums, and gongs unleashing noisy blasts to proclaim the Day of Judgment. Against this, the chorus struggled to be heard, their shouts futile against the onslaught of percussion. Following this, another poem ("Suicide in the Trenches" by Siegfried Sassoon) provided a meditative (though unflinchingly bleak) respite.

The  Tuba Mirum (the "last trumpet") featured huge eructations from the heavy brass, as the choral singers fought to be heard against this tsunami of sound. A further assault followed in the Rex Tremendae before giving way to "Ancor che l'core promessa tanto" by Michelangelo. This was a lengthy setting, almost like an opera aria that sounded incongruous in the middle of the Dies Irae but perhaps that was the composer's intent. The Lacrymosa that followed brought the frst half of the evening to thunderous close, exercising the odd idea of stopping for intermission in the middle of the Sequence.

The liturgy of the Requiem promises redemption after the wrath of God, and Mr. Rouse made good on that promise in the second half of the work. The Sanctus was a slow-building crescendo, started by the singers of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in the first tier of the hall. Conducting with eyes in the back of his head, Mr. Gilbert divided his attention between this offstage force and the massive orchestra in front of him, adding elements of sound as the whole rose to a stupefying climax. It was followed by another poetic setting: John Milton's "Methought I saw my late espoused saint."

Mr. Rouse's greatest achievement was the final Agnus Dei where the invocation of the Lamb of God contrasted with the Christmas hymn "Est ist ein Ros gesprungen", "Requesciat, pax" by John Ellerton and a second setting of Michelangelo's poetry. The themes of these four ideas alternated between the now-divided main chorus, the children's choir, Mr. Imbrailio and the orchestra. Alan Gilbert directed this flow of musical traffic, ensuring a smooth switching between these interacting blocks of sound, building one upon another like the alternating sections of a Bruckner chorale. The work came to a soft, redemptive close with a soft final statement of the Requiem theme. The applause that followed was another welcome, percussive roar of sound.

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