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June 10, 2011

Verdi's 'Requiem' brings Baltimore Symphony season to a memorable close

OK, so a requiem isn't the most obvious way to end a season. Something of a downer, all that singing in Latin about judgment day and eternal rest.

But when you're talking Verdi's "Requiem," you're talking one of the mightiest of masterworks, a fusion of solemnity and all-out operatic drama.

The alternately roaring and whispering score, Verdi's response to the death of his great hero, Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, hasn't lost a bit of its awesomeness since the premiere of 1874.

That point is being reinforced this week at the Baltimore Symphony's closing concerts of the 2011-12 season. The roughly 80-minute "Requiem" is the sole item on the program.

Verdi was not a religious man in any conventional sense. He may not have believed in a word of the ancient Mass for the Dead. But he turned those words into a music drama so vivid in its pictorial representation, so deep-felt in its examination of what it means to face death, that it could send a shiver through even the most intrepid atheist.   

Thursday night's performance at Meyerhoff Hall started off ...


a little blandly, but ended up producing some of the best thrills of the season. I imagine that the repeats Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore will be even more grabbing.

With her tendency to keep phrasing and tempos under tight control, conductor Marin Alsop may not be to the Verdi born. Still, she has a keen sense of the theatrical, and the "Requiem" has a pronounced theatrical streak -- it was attacked by some as positively irreverent when it was new. 

But Alsop missed the potential theatrical power right at the start on Thursday; the hushed opening measures didn't have enough mystery and subtlety of dynamics.

I still remember well the riveting, gradually audible effect Christoph Eschenbach achieved in that passage last year with the National Symphony -- what a fabulous way to draw listeners in.

By contrast, the BSO played the music routinely, a feeling that seemed to influence the superb Washington Chorus when it began to sing.

Even the first, famous outbursts of "Dies Irae" -- the part used, rather distressingly, in TV commercials -- sounded a few degrees short of teeth-rattling. It was as if Alsop had decided to keep the lid on the fury.

But then things started to click. The quadraphonic trumpet calls in the "Tuba Mirum" section, Verdi's depiction of the sound that would wake the dead, may have been the signal, too, for those onstage. Whatever the case, from that moment on, the performers started to unleash the emotional depth of the "Requiem" to an increasingly satisfying degree.

Each subsequent "Dies Irae" explosion from the chorus and orchestra moved up a half-point on the Richter scale. The reflective passages in between, featuring the solo vocalists, were shaped beautifully, too, by the conductor. She allowed the singers room to spin out their phrases and drew sensitive accompaniment for them from the orchestra.

The chorus shone more impressively with each entrance.

There was an intense lyricism from the ensemble in the "Lacrymosa" and "Agnus Dei," and the choristers articulated the surging "Sanctus," the closest thing to a cheery interlude in the whole work, with admirable clarity and a richly blended tone.

For all of the choral and orchestral challenges in the "Requiem," the heaviest burden is on the four vocal soloists. There are many times when the music sounds like "Aida: The Sequel," so it is up to those soloists to deliver a lot of operatic weight. They also have to be just as capable of nuance.

Heading the quartet assembled by the BSO is Angela Meade, who gave a sensational account of the pivotal soprano solo on Thursday. The way she floated the "Sed signifer" portion of the "Offertorio" matched perfectly the text's description of a "holy light."

She sounded a bit less magical on the soft high note in the concluding "Libera me," but that was a minor disappointment in such an affecting performance. Could Meade be the next great Verdian soprano? I might take that bet. 

Eve Gigliotti used her creamy, resonant mezzo in compelling fashion throughout; she blended poignantly with Meade in the "Agnus Dei." Could Gigliotti be the next great Verdian mezzo? I might take that bet, too. 

Alfred Walker's burnished bass-baritone in the "Confutatis" rang out with a terrific mix of strength and eloquence. Tenor Richard Clement lacked Italianate warmth of tone and had some trouble in the upper reaches. But he molded his lines, especially in the delicate "Hostias," incisively.

As for the BSO's effort on Thursday, there was much to savor. Yes, there were unsettled moments, as when the cellos, in slippery form, tackled the introduction to the "Offertorio." On the whole, though, the orchestra did sturdy and vibrant work, with fearless brass players leading the way.

The audience, alas, contained assorted distractions -- talkers, roamers (two women in different rows down front got up and left during delicate parts of the performance), at least one smart phone user (she interacted online during all of the sublime "Agnus Dei," the light from the device shining away), and a strange electronic beeping that lasted a good long while.

It's enough to make me question why I still love attending live performances so much.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:10 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


I saw the woman with the smart phone, and it was extremely distracting. I was in the front row of Grand Tier Center. How could anyone look away from such an amazing performance, and why did her neighbors not snatch the phone away from her. I hope that somebody identifies her and shames her publicly.

I couldn't agree more. Thanks for writing. TIM

I was at the Thursday performance and also had a cell phone go off rather loudly near me. Its annoying, but I could immediately see other people in the area double-check that their phones were off.

Annoying, yes, but nothing beats a good live performance and we need to support the local live arts, or they'll be gone. Then we'll have to go to catch the live simulcasts in the theaters and be reduced to telling our children and grand-children about the old days when most larger cities had professional orchestras.

Tim, in an earlier post about the gadgets in the concert hall issue, you told me that I'm letting these people win if I stop going to concerts because of them. In my mind, they've already won if they're already in the hall with the gadgets going off. I had plans to go to the Sunday performance of this concert, but reminders about the gadgets and other distractions in the audience changed my mind. Just my perception, or is it worse at the Meyerhoff than other local performance spaces?

It can be just as horrid elsewhere. At the last NSO concert I attended at the Kennedy Center, someone started a commotion in the balcony during the first half -- yelling and whatnot -- and in the second a lady behind me couldn't figure out how to silence her ringing cell phone. That said, I managed to enjoy the music as I suppressed murderous impulses. TIM

"Queen's composer [Sir Peter Maxwell Davies] calls for fines on 'artistic terrorists' who allow mobiles to ring during concerts.";facebook

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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