Review: Verdi Requiem ends festival season gloriously
August 25, 2009
In pre-concert remarks, Aspen Music Festival president Alan Fletcher said that scheduling the Verdi Requiem for the season finale had caused some controversy. “A downer,” some had called it.
Not so. After a glorious, dramatic and powerful 80 minutes, the music comes to rest on a soft, fuzzy, beautiful A-flat major chord. That’s no downer.
A quartet of outstanding singers, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin gave this monumental work its due Sunday, bringing a near-capacity audience in the Benedict Music Tent to its feet in appreciation. It was a glorious way to close out the season.
Slatkin shepherded a performance notable for drawing the drama from the core of the music. He laid down soft carpets of string sound for the hushed opening, then whipped up thrilling storms in the Dies irae and Tuba mirum. His tempos felt exactly right, and he found balances that kept the momentum high without overpowering the singers.
It would have been difficult to overpower mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung or bass Morris Robinson. Their outsized voices cut through no matter what was going on. More importantly, they understood what the music was all about and delivered it framed in gold. Soprano Twyla Robinson and tenor Vinson Cole, despite voices not as big, still carried the music clearly and effectively.
DeYoung was simply magnificent. Her Liber scriptus was like a full-fledged aria, as if Ulrica (from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera) had been summoned to present a ringing sermon. Leading the trio of singers in Lux aeterna, her voice softened and warmed, melding with the others. Robinson (the bass) thundered without any apparent strain, and scared the bejeebers out of us in Mors stupebit and Confutatis.
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Robinson (the soprano) deployed a creamy lyric timbre for her music, most effective in her duets with DeYoung – Recordare and Agnus Dei. A clipped high B-flat aside, her final Libera me combined gorgeous sound with fervent prayer. Cole, a fullfledged faculty member here, used his clear, focused lyric sound convincingly in the ensembles and in his big moment, Ingemisco.
For its part, the orchestra played with fervor and accuracy. And aside from an awkward moment at the start of Sanctus, the chorus sang with clarity and distinction.
Finally, anyone looking for omens might have noticed that after the cloudy afternoon turned to showers, the sun emerged as the quartet sang the words “lucem sanctum” (holy light).
Saturday night in Harris Hall, Vladimir Feltsman brought his fierce intelligence to bear on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, a two-hour marathon of preludes and fugues in every key both major and minor. Bach wrote them as exercises, probably never meaning for them all to be performed at once. The challenge for the pianist is to find something to make them cohere. Feltsman’s answer was to emphasize the chromatic aspects of this music, Bach’s harmonic colors, even the sinuous twists and turns in the melodies. Felstman’s formidable technique met the demands of Bach’s three- and four-part counterpoint with no discernible problems, not even in the rapid-fire prelude in G major. He got variety into the music by using dynamics, various levels of legato and other refinements. The result could sometimes overwhelm, as he drew rich sound from the Steinway. He sustained the intensity, increasing from quiet anticipation to cresting waves of power in the final fugue in B minor. For all that, the high points for me came when he ratcheted down the dynamics and let the music flow easily, as it did in the preludes and slow fugues in D minor and G minor. As always with Feltsman, he took liberties that could horrify purists. But he created a world of his own, and as often happens it remained fascinating to the end.
The final Saturday chamber music program included a superb performance of Vaughn-Williams’ seldom-heard Piano Quintet in C minor. Written for the same instrumentation as Schubert’s famous
Trout Quintet, this one finds the composer in a generous mode, lavishing mellow harmonies and a rich lode of melody on the piece. The group, anchored by pianist Gabriel Chodos and bassist Bruce Bansby, did it justice.
Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert got off to a fine start. Just before the lovely final chords of Mendelssohn’s Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, conductor Murray Sidlin seamlessly interjected Puck’s final speech (“If we shadows have offended …”) from the play. He’s no Shakespearean actor, but the pacing and style felt just right.
The program finished with a fresh, honest and engaging performance of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, featuring mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and bassbaritone Ryan McKinny in an orchestral version that debuted only last year. Although some of it seems musically dated now, the final three pieces, ” Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight,” the orchestral “Nachstpiel” and the final “In Memoriam,” find Bernstein at his most perceptively snarky and then his most heartbreakingly sentimental.
In between, Darrett Adkins, a faculty artist who has performed in front of major orchestras across several continents, experienced some unfortunate intonation problems in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. It got a standing ovation anyway. Aspen audiences can be so generous to one of their own.