Verdi: Messa da Requiem

Conspirare's performance of the Verdi work provided a blazing vision of Judgment Day and a transcendent glimpse of glory

Arts Review

Verdi: Messa da Requiem

Dell Hall at the Long Center, June 21

If you ever had any question as to the sound that would attend the Day of Judgment, that fearful hour when the Lord God in his wrath comes to judge the world by fire, you could have had your answer – and a definitive one, too – in Dell Hall this past midsummer's night. There, the massed voices of the Conspirare Symphonic Choir, the Victoria Bach Festival Chorus, and the Texas State University Choirs – 172 singers strong – and the 80 instrumentalists of the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra attacked Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem with a force that left you feeling the fury of the Almighty in your ears: strings churning like storm clouds, timpani thundering, brass blistering the air, and the voices – those magnificent voices! – swirling together in one mighty roiling mass, raging and righteous, a celestial power poised to incinerate the sinful and dissolve the world in ashes.

This Verdi masterwork trades heavily on those images of the Last Day, with an angry Almighty holding humanity to account and obliterating his creation in bitter flames. The composer drew on all his tricks of the trade as a writer of operas to construct a soundscape of high drama that could evoke that most dramatic of days, and any ensemble that tackles it must do so with extraordinary passion and skill. These artists did, taking their direction from Conspirare Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson, whose presence on the podium showed an astonishing focus and command of the material. You could see he was deeply inside the work but not swept along by it – always driving it, not being driven by it. He clearly felt the emotion of the music, yet he remained centered, at times with an almost ethereal calm. He appeared connected to every one of those 250 musicians before him, drawing them together into this heavenly army and deftly orchestrating the apocalypse.

Of course, Verdi's Requiem isn't solely a portrait of God's wrath and the end of days. The movements evoking Judgment Day and the fear it inspires – "Dies irae" – alternate with passages that plead for God's deliverance and mercy. Four soloists take the lead in expressing these appeals, and the quartet employed here – soprano Kallen Esperian, mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon, tenor Karl Dent, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn – did so with a richness of emotion that would have won charity from the most hard-hearted of deities. In the petition for eternal light to shine upon the souls of the departed, Redmon's voice itself illuminated the hall, and Esperian brought the entire work to a moving close with her profoundly tender "Libera me," her anxious face seeming transfixed by a vision of "that awful day."

As the first full concert by Conspirare in the Long Center, the Verdi Requiem was a stunning achievement, one that showcased once again the ensemble's mastery of the most challenging choral music and Johnson's remarkable skills as a conductor and an interpreter of great vocal works. But it also gave us a chance to experience those virtues in a new setting, where the acoustics of Dell Hall made their remarkable harmonies and caress of the music all the more breathtaking. For the fortunate hundreds that were present for it, this Requiem was a transcendent moment, a glimpse of glory.

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Verdi: Messa da Requiem, Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, Kallen Esperian, Robynne Redmon, Karl Dent, Christian Van Horn

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