Verdi fills Coronado with sounds and images

Verdi fills Coronado with sounds and images

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

On Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Coronado Theatre, the stage was packed wall to wall with an expanded orchestra, joined by 120 voices from the Mendelssohn Chorale and four-star soloists, for the Rockford Symphony’s first-ever performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, a desperately operatic rendition of the text of the Roman Catholic Mass, enhanced by the 13th-century verses that portray the medieval view of Dies Irae, that day of wrath, the day of the last judgment, when all our sins are arrayed before us, and our fates are sealed for all eternity.

Our earliest inklings of prehistoric life are often derived from burial sites, where we learn that countless thousands of years ago our ancestors anticipated an existence after death that might call for nourishment, household goods and personal mementos. Along the way came a sense of foreboding at facing the unknown, and scariest of all, the capacity to feel guilt, to see death itself as a possible punishment for our earthly misdeeds. How could we assume that any existence after death would be other than a continued punishment for those misdeeds? Medieval paintings often portray a phantasmagorical view of our souls enduring all manner of relentless torment at the hands of grotesque demons.

Verdi’s familiar operas show us many romantic or tragic deaths, but they do not pursue the life of the hereafter. But here, in his Requiem, all the possible fears are realized, so that while it opens with a quiet prayer for the departed, the final lines beg a very personal forgiveness for each of us offering those prayers. Libera me! Don’t condemn me to eternal torments!

There are orchestral sweeps that resemble the rising flames devastating everything; the huge bass drums crash to accent our fears while pulses within the orchestra seem like the lashes of whips. Every now and then, there is a serene passage, but then the chorus returns with its cries of “Dies Irae, Dies Illa!”. Oh, that day of wrath!

Performed without breaks (though the soloists occasionally pulled out their now-ubiquitous water bottles for their own thirst), the work holds the listener with a continual shift from vocal solo, to ensemble, to orchestra, to chorus, and occasional solo instruments. At one point, to dramatize the trumpets heralding the last judgment, the brass was heard antiphonally from the two ends of the balcony, echoing one another to build up the suspense for the next crash of the percussion.

The soloists all were well chosen for this performance. Soprano Susan Gonzalez had a lovely fluid voice that traveled smoothly through the music, and never failed to make even the highest notes seem delicate and heartfelt. Mezzo soprano Stacy Eckert was able to carry her own in ensemble with the two male soloists, but also be mellow in the moments when she and Gonzalez had to blend as one, sometimes harmonizing, other times as a unison or a parallel octave (which is almost a form of unison.) It is often easy to assume that this works, but not all singers are able to merge this way, which calls for close attention to one another’s tones and musical reading.

Tenor Eric Ashcraft resisted the temptation to use his high notes as a way of dominating the evening. He had the force to send out his own clarion call when appropriate, but more often amazed us all with a dynamic control that gave his upper range an almost feminine timbre, unusual in this day of relentless star power and musical egomania. Bass James Patterson seemed to be speaking to us, accenting his words and the messages they carried; singing, of course, but with a manner that recalled speech in a way that held our attention on the words, the warning of the threat of the unknown.

The Mendelssohn Chorale, invigorated by the opportunities in rich repertoire that come with the new role of chorus for the Rockford Symphony, put their rehearsal time to good use so that their performance, well prepared by Director Martha Bein, will be remembered for a long time, not only by the audience, but also by the singers who can’t help but be enriched by the experience of being involved in this work.

Conductor Steven Larsen opened his pre-concert talk with his recollection of the first time he sang the Requiem; I, too, treasure memories of a performance with my college choirs many years ago, and my only regret Saturday was that I couldn’t be up there on stage reliving that experience. But then, how would I take notes to write this review?

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