Joseph E. Morgan
On May 31, the Nashville Symphony closed its classical season with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem with many of its musicians playing instruments drawn from the Violins of Hope collection—a collection of instruments assembled because of their connection to the Holocaust. The resulting concert was not only a beautiful performance of one of the central pieces of the vocal music canon; it was also a meaningful statement regarding the ability of the good to persevere.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this composition is its power, despite the fact that its composer was not a religious man, being raised, but lapsed, as a Roman Catholic. And although Verdi, as one of our greatest operatic composers, is perhaps the one composer who might be able to convincingly express an unheld belief, it is rather hard to believe that there isn’t the slightest bit of the pragmatist in his theology.
The piece is huge, written for a full orchestra, including eight trumpets, four vocalists, and a double chorus. Verdi’s chorus often takes on the Greek archetype representing and informing the community of the broader meaning while the individual singers personalize and individualize the experience. In this, Tucker Biddlecombe’s chorus was very well prepared. The blending was precise and crisp with a strong intonation and apparent responsiveness to Maestro Guerrero’s direction, particularly in the imitative counterpoint in the “Sanctus” fugue.
Of the singers, bass Eric Owens was perhaps the most well known, famous from his performance as Alberich in the Met’s production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. His solo in the “Tuba Mirum” was extraordinary and riveting. Mezzo-Soprano Michelle DeYoung brought a rich instrument and nuanced interpretation to her “Lux aeterna” which slowly brought the topic towards one of hope. However, among the vocalists, the evening was owned by soprano Erika Sunnegårdh. The final movement of the work is perhaps the greatest that Verdi wrote for a soprano voice, and Sunnegårdh blossomed into it. From madness, to joy, to tender love, she substantiated and brought to life Verdi’s remarkable expression of religious hope, fear, and joy of the end of times.
For the orchestra’s part, Maestro Guerrero brought the nuance we’ve come to expect from his interpretation; however, at the “Dies irae” one could sense that all stops were released. The terrifying call of the trumpets, the thunderous bass drum, and the fearsome chorus all aligned to this famous movement, made it seem as fresh and as horrifying as if heard for the first time. On reflection, after this amazing performance, I thought not of the horrible evil that inspired the collection of these violins, but the remarkable beauty they were still capable of creating long after. Indeed, there is hope when beauty like this is able to persevere.
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