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The appearance of the North Carolina Symphony in Chapel Hill on a Friday evening is a rare, if not unprecedented, event, but this was no ordinary weekend. Our state’s symphony, under the direction of Grant Llewellyn, returned to the Chapel Hill Bible Church – their temporary Thursday venue during the 2004-05 season while UNC’s Memorial Hall was being renovated – for a concert commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
In the aftermath of this horrific event that will forever be emblazoned in the hearts and psyches of everyone alive on that day, almost immediately it was music that was looked to as a source of even a modicum of solace and comfort. There have been dozens of pieces written as 9/11 memorials, with varying degrees of musical and popular success and even appropriateness, but it fell to Mozart’s Requiem to become the work most often played in the immediate aftermath, and now, during the tenth anniversary. This has always been somewhat of a curiosity to me because it is probably less contemplative and inward-looking than many other requiems, but its popularity and profundity and the comfort it gives make it forever associated with 9/11.
This church has a fairly large stage – for a church – but it is no match for a full orchestra and choir, so there was a slightly reduced string section and a subset of the North Carolina Master Chorale, Dr. Alfred E. Sturgis, Music Director. The slight reduction in forces had absolutely no ill effect – in fact, just the opposite. This was one of the most glorious, impassioned, and technically impressive performances of this or any work that I have heard in recent memory.
The program began with another work written near the end of Mozart’s life: the motet Ave Verum Corpus for chorus, strings, and organ. If comfort was what the audience was seeking, then this was like a warm blanket being draped over you on a freezing night as Llewellyn elicited a magical feeling of peace, with the voices and strings caressing every note.
Awareness of the facts and myths of Mozart’s final work, mostly via Peter Shaffer’s play and the movie Amadeus, have by now entered general public knowledge, so there is no need for even a brief history of his Requiem. The opening Introitus, with that delicious dissonance in the woodwinds, leads into the text which was the reason for our community gathering for this solemn occasion: “Rest eternal grant them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them.” The great contrapuntal Kyrie, one that perhaps even Bach would envy, made it clear that we were in the presence of a performance for the ages. Llewellyn’s sprightly tempos seemed natural and the technical proficiency and passion of both singers and players was frightening in its power and momentum.
The four soloists were a set of singers so uniformly excellent that I truly doubt that I will ever hear a quartet that will equal them. Soprano Dominique Labelle’s voice is like a laser with a soul. She has the regrettably unique ability to hit crystal clear high notes from big interval jumps without scooping into the pitch and/or ululating with a huge vibrato. Mezzo-soprano Krista River was equal in her expressiveness and allegiance to the vocal line. The men consisted of the bright and piercing tenor Richard Clement, nicely complemented by the cavernous and somewhat intimidating bass Christopheren Nomura. This group had several wonderful quartet sections, especially in the Benedictus, some so affecting and lyrical that they would not seem out of place in any of the great Mozart operas.
Having just experienced a wonderful concert by a chamber orchestra without a conductor, I have been pondering some variation of the question, “Just what is the purpose of a conductor?” it is Grant Llewellyn’s masterful leading of Mozart’s Requiem that answers that. His entire physical presence and demeanor imbues everyone facing him with the spirit of the composer, and he elevates what you think are your limits to levels previously dormant. The job description is more than “beat time and cue entrances.”
The chorus was especially silky and warm during the beautiful Lachrymosa while stately and dignified in the Hostias. The reduced size of all the forces and the surprisingly excellent acoustics of this large, open venue contributed to a perfect balance that is not always the case with mega-choirs.
As transfixed as we all were by the magnificence of the musicianship and the solemnity of the occasion, we still had one final lump-in-your-throat moment. At the final powerful cadence, with nothing spoken, Llewellyn paused for a minute of silence. As the music hung in the air, the thoughts of lives cut short by senseless evil was palpable, and the hope that something as ephemeral as music can serve as a balm was again realized.