Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Verdi Requiem

It was the concert highlight of the season, Verdi's supreme masterpiece; the Requiem Mass in Memory of Manzoni. Michael Stern, Music Director, was conducting.

So the Kansas City Symphony Chorus sounded better than ever. Diction was for the most part excellent, entrances were clear, on pitch and they could purr or raise the roof as needed. Some of the more contrapuntal sections were a bit sloppy, but nothing to scream about. The Orchestra sounded good as well, with the exception of some uncharacteristically tentative string intonation and some occasional wind intonation issues as well, again not characteristic. The brass were in good form, the antiphonal touches in the Tuba Mirum were especially effective.

So why I am I less than thrilled about this performance? The piece demands a quartet of soloists with full rich voices, an operatic yet restrained flair and an ability to blend. They need voices to lead us through the many long and frequently slow-tempo solos and ensemble pieces so as not to bog the piece down. Voices with power, yet not shrieking, shouting histrionics.

None of these had that ability, at all.

Tenor John Mac Master, despite an impressive resume, sang with a strange constriction that I wondered if he was even giving the performance his best effort. The stirring, spine tingling tenor entrance in the Kyrie was almost an anticlimax. Even my half-ass tenor voice can belt that line out with authority and (usually) on pitch. He certainly did not hit any wrong notes, but certainly did not convey any drama. Bass Mikhail Svetlov, also with an impressive background, possesses a deep yet sort of sterile voice that unfortunately did not blend well with the others. Again his performance was tentative and lacking in grace.

The ladies were a mixed bag as well. Soprano Indra Thomas simply could not hold on to extended notes and clipped too many phrases. She and Mezzo Guang Yang simply did not blend at all, and in the short Pie Jesu section, seemed to be totally lost. Maybe not lost, but wandering around a bit. Yang was probably the better of the two.

I missed the sweet resignation of the lacrimosa as the soloists tried in vain to blend and communicate. Verdi's wonderful Lux Aeterna, despite some effective low brass underpinnings from the orchestra, failed to shine, pun intended. My favorite section, the incredible Agnus Dei, was marred by the harshly conflicting sounds of the mezzo and the soprano, totally not in tune with each other. Because of the straining, unimaginative voices, the long solo and ensemble stretches did lag and disappoint.

Very telling were the expressions on the faces of the mezzo, tenor and bass when they finished after the Lux Aeterna and let the soprano conclude with the Libra Me. They looked absolutely bored and disgusted. I know those on stage are not to attract attention to themselves or interact, but really, these folks looked like they wished they could just sink into the ground, or take a nap. The stirring bass drum blows (some of the best and most effective I have ever heard) would have woke them up.

You all get the drift. I tore little marks in my program to mark spots that were problematic but now just have a tattered program book. Can't win them all, but with a better group of soloists or at least more commitment from them it would have been a winner. It was that close.

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