Friday, June 06, 2014

Kansas City Symphony Verdi Requiem

The May 30 through June 1 performances of the Verdi Requiem could be summarized as “redemptive”, not just for the departed soul but for the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus, led by Music Director Michael Stern. The symphony's last performance of Verdi's 1874 masterpiece in May 2008 was problematic to be kind; the main culprits being the chorus and the totally unenthusiastic soloists. The performance was leaden, loud rather than powerful and overall disappointing. This time around in the much friendlier and spacious Helzberg Hall, a rejuvenated chorus, a seasoned orchestra and more committed soloists combined for a powerful, expressive performance.

The chorus has, in my experience, never made a more subtly expressive entrance than that of the opening, practically whispered “Requiem”. Clear, perfectly balanced, quietly powerful with excellent diction, it set the tone for the rest of the work. Most impressive was their brisk and precisely executed “Sanctus” a wickedly complex eight part fugue for double chorus. Diction was excellent throughout, despite the sheer size of the chorus, something that is not always the case. One could easily make out the Latin and if anyone was not clear of the meaning, the translations were available on a screen high above the stage.

The solo quartet was 1000% (sic) better than those in the 2008 performances. Tenor Dimitri Pittas was strong and lyrical (giving a very fine reading of the “Ingemisco” section of the “Dies Irae”) but a bit strained at times and not always able to float above the fray. Bass Jordan Bisch possessed a dark but slightly unwieldy voice and seemed a bit tentative at times. Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, was quite fine with a clear yet burnished tone. The star of the quartet, soprano Amber Wagner dug into her many long solos with gusto and with resigned sweetness when needed. She alone could consistently float over the huge forces. Mumford and Wagner were superb in the “Agnus Dei” (in my opinion the most moving and sublime of all the sections of the work), sweetly blended and perfectly together, the chorus equally well integrated with the solo lines.

Stern kept the performance moving, critical in the long, episodic Dies Irae section. He viewed the work not as “Verdi's greatest opera” but as a powerful statement of the awe and fear present in the liturgy of the requiem mass. The orchestra sometimes plays second fiddle to the vocalists, but in every moment the excellent ensemble work, singing tone and steady rhythm of the orchestra provided a firm foundation for the text and drama. The stunning bass drum blows in the “Dies Irae” were powerful and resonant, whereas they can often be a muddy thud.

Much of this season has been devoted to encore performances of past seasons' favorites, re-imagined for the new concert hall. If a work ever needed a second chance it was the Verdi Requiem. It got that chance, and we were richly rewarded for it.