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Under the baton of GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Society of Greensboro brilliantly presented Verdi's Requiem in War Memorial Auditorium to a large and attentive audience. The watchword of the evening was drama, which Sitkovetsky abundantly delivered in the hour and a quarter work.
Giuseppe Verdi's gargantuan Requiem brings together the forces of orchestra, chorus, and four soloists profoundly and sometimes operatically to describe the final moments on earth as the Apocalypse begins to unfold. The text of the mass goes back more than a thousand years, and the occasion for this particular setting was the death of one of Italy's great men of letters, the poet Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. Verdi responded with this musical setting less than a year later.
The opening movement, "Requiem and Kyrie," begins softly and presents orchestra, chorus, and soloists by turns. The Choral Society, a community chorus of more than 150 singers, turned in a remarkably professional sound, with subtly nuanced lines, good diction, and great attention to detail. Of course a chorus of this size could present a robust and stentorian sound, but they could also be amazingly soft, as displayed in this first movement, which asks for peace for the departed soul.
The orchestra, for its part, presented a fabulous array of romantic sounds — it is an ensemble that makes use of a large number of winds and brass. This was no more evident than in the long and multi-sectioned second movement, "Dies irae," which depicts the "Day of wrath" when God returns to earth to judge all of mankind, living and dead.
The choir, sounding like banshees from hell, was accompanied by a brimstone-breathing string section, punctuated by drums and timpani. There are few moments in the literature that approximate this fearful and awe-inspiring music. It was in passages such as these that the power of the chorus and orchestra became a visceral experience, thrilling and dynamic.
This movement also contains the famous "Tuba mirum," in which trumpet players stationed in the balcony respond to the orchestra on the stage, leading to an overwhelming outpouring of emotion. This passage was another highlight of the evening.
The soloists — Jennifer Check, soprano, Carmella Jones, mezzo-soprano, Mark T. Panuccio, tenor, and Alfred Walker, bass — got to demonstrate their vocal powers in the movement as well.
The star of the quartet was Check — her beautiful voice was always a pleasure to hear, whether she was floating high notes with ease or earnestly begging for forgiveness. Jones' rich voice was heard in the "Liber scriptus," and she did not hesitate blatantly to change vocal registers to help dramatize the text. This was a procedure that produced some success but also caused some out-of-tune singing.
Panuccio displayed a very effective mezza voce in the "Ingemisco" adding beautiful color to the soft passage. However, his singing also suffered from intonation problems, especially noticeable when he sang the high powerful notes. Walker's voice was colorful and provided a solid foundation in the quartet singing, although when the four sang without the support of the orchestra, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish what pitches were actually being sung.
Some highlights of the soloists included the beautifully executed "Agnus Dei," in which Check and Jones sang gorgeously, with the octave melody exquisitely tuned. Also noticeable was Walker's singing of the "Mors stupebit," which first introduces the bass as a soloist. But it was Check's singing of the "Libera me" that really shone as the highlight of the evening's solo singing – intense, full of emotion, and artistic, entirely capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the listener.
In terms of the chorus, the "Rex tremendae" section featured both a huge sound as well as a soft, colorful one. The fugue in the "Sanctus" movement is treacherous, but the Choral Society proved itself capable of fast singing with few slipups. Well done!
The balance between the chorus and orchestra was quite good most of the evening, with the orchestra covering the chorus only a couple of times.
Key to the success of this profound level of music making was Sitkovetsky, who demanded much from the forces. His intense direction produced a tension that was always taut and dramatic underpinnings that never sagged.
Welborn E. Young, the director of the Choral Society, likewise must be applauded for his superb preparation of the chorus. The entire cast of musicians should be proud of such a monumental undertaking that resulted in such a beautiful and powerful plea of mankind for mercy and forgiveness.