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Review: Resplendent Requiem

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2009 - Gioachino Rossini died at his villa at Passy, France, on a previous and long-ago Friday the Thirteenth, the one that fell in November 1868. Rossini was – is – a popular favorite among opera fans and was highly respected by his musical peers and the European cultural world as a whole.

Rossini’s reputation and popularity were such that, after he died, the much greater composer Giuseppe Verdi tried to organize a group of colleagues to create a Mass of requiem for the departed maestro of The Barber of Seville and Cinderella. This requiem by committee was never pulled off, Verdi’s authority notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, an important element of it survives, and it is the ultimate and one of the most haunting passages of a work of art that resounds as one of the music's greatest achievements. It is the Verdi Requiem and tonight (Feb. 13) and again on Saturday night (Feb. 14) it is to be performed at 8 o’clock at Powell Symphony Hall. Its treatment in the hands of Maestro David Robertson and the assembled virtuosity of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is triumphant, if Thursday’s dress rehearsal is an indication of its majesty.

The passage of the Requiem that Verdi composed for the Rossini memorial is “Libera me,” which includes a solo for soprano, music and lyrics for the chorus as well as the Requiem’s final fugue. It begins with a rapid-fire invocation to God for salvation from “eternal death in the dread day of judgment, when the heaven and the earth both shall be moved.”

Such a supplication is, to greater and lesser degrees, the substance of the Requiem, an eclectic assembly of pleas to the Almighty for deliverance from evil, for the peaceful rest (requiem) for a departed soul and, by inference and extension, for salvation for those of us who remain -- but certainly face days of wrath, certain death ourselves and the Biblical promise of an ultimate judgment as well.

The words of the Requiem, whose form follows generally the ordinary of the Roman Rite Mass, beseech God for eternal peace. Such was Verdi’s invocation to God on behalf of Rossini in “Libera me.” This element of the Requiem is not standard in the ordinary. And the words honor another of Verdi’s heroes, Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Manzoni, to whose memory the Requiem to be heard at Powell Hall this weekend was dedicated.

Manzoni was an esteemed poet, novelist and patriot. His novel “I promessi sposa” is considered a watershed in the development of 19th century Italian literature. He died in 1873 at 88, and lived an interesting and overall happy life, with dizzying successes, descents into financial despair and in mourning for children of his who died. His work was not only important to Italian literature but, because of its support of struggles for independence and unification in 19th century Italy, was woven tightly into the fabric of Italian nationalism. However, Manzoni claims our attention not so much for his literary prowess or his political influences but for his memorialization in this impalpable monument, sculptured in sound by Verdi.

The Requiem was first performed in 1874 at the church of San Marco in Milan, the church from which Manzoni was buried. It has remained in the standard repertory since. It is a huge piece, and its artistic population consumes most of the real estate available on the platform of Powell Symphony Hall.

It is important to remember and to understand that its first performance was in a sacred space, San Marco, a church that dates back to the mid-13th century and perhaps before. There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Requiem that gets trotted out every time it is performed and is as much rubbish as it is cliché. Perhaps because there are reverberations and anticipations in it of Verdi’s operas, a tradition was established in the 19th century of characterizing, or demeaning, the Requiem as opera in elaborate ecclesiastical drag.

Certainly, it is “operatic” at times; making operas was, after all, Verdi’s occupation and his genius. At the time of Manzoni’s death, he was just coming off his run with the Khedive of Egypt, for whom he had composed Aida, the premiere of which was given in Cairo’s new opera house in celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal.

Soon after the first performance of the Requiem, he brought his Otello, to the stage. There are close musical similarities between the Requiem and Otello, arguably the greatest Italian opera-tragedy of all time.

Robertson's reverence

Amy Kaiser, the director of the Symphony chorus, said at the dress rehearsal Thursday that Symphony Music Director Robertson made an emphatic declaration about the essential spirituality of the Requiem when he met with the chorus earlier in the week.

I need to emphasize here that I am eminently unqualified as a music critic, and what I write here is not a review, rather an appreciation and a reflection.

However, I have priors with this piece and, along with five or six other works of art, the Requiem occupies a central position in my cultural treasury. I have listened to it innumerable times, and love it so much that in 1994 my partner Martin Kaplan and I traveled to St. John’s College in Santa Fe to learn and to sing it in the Berkshire Choral Festival.

For me, it was transfiguring, having a chance to participate in a performance of such a towering work in the company of serious musicians, in a land celebrated for its qualities of enchantment along with its gardens of musical delights -- and in front of a standing-room-only and very appreciative audience.

Thursday evening, I was a member of an audience of fewer than 10 sprinkled around a mostly empty music hall, but we were appreciative indeed. In fact, we were stunned by the performance we saw and heard.

In the hands of talented or even simply competent musicians, the Requiem is rewarding. In the hands of Maestro Robertson, however, it vaulted onto a different, more elevated, more rarified, more celestial platform.

I cannot say exactly why this Robertson Requiem is so distinctive, so powerfully affecting. Robertson’s reported declaration to the choristers, that the work stands apart as a majestic spiritual anomaly in the repertory of Giuseppe Verdi, certainly has something to do with the exalted quality of it.

But beyond that exaltation, Robertson demonstrated once again his ability to take difficult works of art, works of art that beneath a lesser baton might stray willfully from the business at hand, and to bring them to quite astonishing realizations.

With physical restraint and seemingly effortless conducting, Robertson wrangles a sprawling work of colossal size and infinite variety and complexity into a shapely, coherent whole performed by an army of musical artists. While it is incumbent upon a conductor to bring discipline to such a beast as Verdi’s Requiem, one does not aim to subdue it, for it is in its willfulness, in its straining against convention, in its bold breaking of the rules its affective powers are to be discerned.

In the end, after the velvety whisperings of the piano passages and the bombast of the fortissimo exaltations radiate into some aesthetic ether, what remains, partly in the intellect but mainly in the soul, can be called either Art, or Redemption or a Peace that passeth all understanding. It is as valuable as it is ineffable. Whatever you call it, however you describe it, you come up short, or at least I do. But you know what you have experienced it is assailably Good and that in some form it will remain with you forever.

Robertson’s approach to it, and his liberation of it into the heavens, quite possibly sets a new standard for it. I, the amateur, and they, professional musicians whose faces registered the joy of genuine accomplishment, recognized simultaneously this performance represents a more abundant, more transcendent presentation of this Requiem mass. Something different, something beyond the quotidian.

Robertson’s approach is personal, idiosyncratic to a degree, dramatic and, in company with the ensemble of musicians he cultivates, a singular achievement. What a privilege it was to be in the hall on Thursday to hear and see this Requiem’s performance, and to feel it work its way into the consciousness and into the soul.

Now, gentle readers, it’s your turn.