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Dvořák Requiem: Stunning Music, Stunning Performance

by Steve Row

February 28, 2010, Durham, NC: One is hard-pressed to describe the performance of Antonín Dvořák's Requiem, Op. 89, by the Choral Society of Durham in anything but the most glowing of terms. We often have heard great music given less-than-great performance, or even less-than-great music given great performance. But before a large audience in the lovely setting of Duke University Chapel, choir, soloists and orchestra — not to mention music — came together in a sublime combination that, to some, proved that God is in His heaven, and all is right with the world.

Perhaps we first should address the music. Why Dvořák's Requiem is not better known is a mystery. Situated somewhere between the operatic grandeur of Verdi's Requiem and Brahms' movingly emotional "German" Requiem is this wonder of late 19th century choral composition. While known mainly as an orchestrator who loved incorporating Czech and Slavic melody into his compositions, Dvořák here resides solidly in the first rank of choral composers. His Stabat Mater is probably better known, but it is not necessarily a better work. And he seems to have put his Czech melody hat away for this piece, so that one can hear melody and scoring that more closely resemble Verdi, Brahms, even Liszt. 

Gorgeous lines for choir and soloists, and a well-crafted score for the accompanying orchestra, permeate this work from start to finish. If you are seeking a choral piece with extended (more operatic) solos, look elsewhere, for Dvořák has provided a variety of solo highlights, though not necessarily ones in as much of a spotlight as, say, Verdi's Requiem. But if you are seeking a choral piece that seamlessly blends choir with soloists, as well as providing some wonderful orchestral lines, this certainly is worth a listen.

The somber "Requiem aeternam" opening gives a hint of the beauty that will follow for the rest of the piece, with shifts in dynamics for the choir as it balances against solos, all augmented by orchestra. Quick crescendos fade just as quickly to diminuendos, and the interesting mix of rhythms in the closing "Kyrie eleison" line, with the women singing in faster tempo and men in slower tempo, is quite unexpected.

Other unusual aspects of the composition include pairing solo lines with choral accompaniment from the opposite gender. In the ninth section, "Offertorium," for example, a mezzo-soprano solo follows a choral introduction by the men's voices, and shortly a bass solo line is joined by the women's voices.

The parts of the Requiem that should instill fear certainly do — the "Dies irae" has a choral line for the women that evokes terror — and the contrast with sweeter passages, such as the "Tuba mirum" that follows, is striking.

As the program notes pointed out, the Requiem contains two distinct parts, and if the opening group of eight sections ending with "Lacrimosa" seems to be dominated by a minor-key presence, the second part of five sections seems to have more of a major-key feeling.

Highlights of the music? Certainly the glorious full chorus in "Tuba mirum," with the hearty organ chord at the end, is thrilling, but even that pales in comparison to the "quam olim Abrahae promisisti" line in the "Offertorium," which even gets repeated in the next "Hostias" section.  Here, all musical forces are brought to bear, from solos to small ensemble to full chorus to orchestra, and part of the section is even a fugue. And the closing "Agnus Dei" section, with its nice mix of solos, duets, trios and closing quartet that opens the "lux perpetua" line, is simply beautiful.

Such a first-rate work demands first-rate performers, and the Choral Society of Durham, led by Rodney Wynkoop, delivered on all counts. And the four soloists — soprano Rochelle Ellis, mezzo-soprano Sharon Munden, tenor Wade Henderson and bass John Kramar — were first-rate as well. The voices of Ellis and Munden have a darker color, which led to wonderful blends in the many duets and conveyed the emotional nature of the music quite nicely. Henderson’s tenor was bright but not overly so, and Kramar provided a rich fullness at the lower end of the score. The men so effortlessly met the demands of the music, and the strength of their voices remained uncompromised throughout this long composition. The singers’ duets, trios and quartets often were stunning, and all four provided real music, not just sound, individually and in small ensemble.

The chorus, which exceeded 150 voices, was obviously well-rehearsed for this piece. The “Confutatis” section, with staggered entrances in the bold, forceful lines giving way to much sweeter singing, was an example of how well the singers handled the dynamic challenges of the score, with neither energy nor diction flagging.  A few parts of the score that required the lower basses to sustain a Russian-like choral sound were performed flawlessly. The women provided their own richness of sound both by themselves and with the men and some of their lines sounded as if angels were singing in the chapel.

The orchestra of more than 50 players was quite well-prepared, too. The strings were spot-on during the entire piece, and several wind solos were quite lovely. The brasses provided the necessary boldness and forcefulness to certain sections without blaring. In only one section, the fourth “Tuba mirum,” did there seem to be a slight imbalance between voices and orchestra, with the softest choral passages overpowered by the orchestra.

Some musical experiences can be considered pleasant. Some can be considered enjoyable. Some can be considered wonderful. And some can be considered almost transformative, so filled with beauty and energy and skill that they linger long after the last note fades away. Such was the experience of this performance. What a treasure!

   
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