Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” My experience of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and his music began by my attending a few of his operas performed by the Baltimore Opera Company at The Lyric Performing Arts Center. I enjoyed the beautiful music and followed the interesting plot lines via English supertitles of the libretto. This past weekend, the BSO presented “Conlon Conducts The Verdi Requiem.” Verdi’s “(Messa da) Requiem,” a musical setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, is performed in Latin but a program insert provided English translation and titles for each part of the mass. In addition to the orchestra, conducted by Artistic Advisor James Conlan, the performance required a quartet of singers (Michelle Bradley, soprano; Yulia Matochkina, mezzo; Russell Thomas, tenor; and Morris Robinson, bass) and a double chorus (The Washington Chorus, directed by Eugene Rogers).
…the singers and chorus were well-balanced and forceful in their intonation, diction and enthusiasm, supported by the dynamic, powerful, and inspiring playing of the BSO.
Verdi wrote the “Requiem” to honor his friend and fellow-patriot, Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and novelist, who, like Verdi, supported the national unification of the Italian states under one flag and one government (known as the Risorgimento). Manzoni died in 1873. Verdi composed the “Requiem” in one year, and the first performance was in Milan at the Church of San Marco on the first anniversary of his friend’s death. There were problems which Verdi managed to handle. He wanted two female soloists and some females in the chorus. The Roman Catholic Church at the time prohibited women from singing in church, so Verdi had to convince Pope Pius IX, not exactly a fan of Verdi’s political or religious views (he was an agnostic), to allow it. He also had to persuade both the Mayor of Milan and the Mayor of Florence to intervene and secure release of the two female soloists he wanted from under their contracts for the performance date. The initial reviews were mixed. Most critics felt the “Requiem” too operatic for ecclesiastical performance, and it quickly became a concert piece, slowly gaining in popularity.
In this performance, the singers and chorus were well-balanced and forceful in their intonation, diction and enthusiasm, supported by the dynamic, powerful, and inspiring playing of the BSO. Mr. Conlon conducted the entire program without using a score or baton. Although it is a tradition that the soloists hold scores for their parts, the iPad has replaced the printed score as a personal choice for soloists and orchestra members.
Verdi used different combinations of the soloists and chorus for each section of the mass. The 160-member chorus was especially impressive in the quieter sections. There were many small orchestral groupings supporting the soloists, e.g. a flute trio, a bassoon quartet, etc. One section of the mass called for eight trumpets, four of which were offstage in the wings.
Verdi was one of the few composers whose genius was recognized during his lifetime. His reputation as the greatest of all Italian opera composers is undisputed, and appreciation of his accomplishments as an artist continues to influence each generation. He requested that there be no music or singing at his funeral. I wonder what he would have thought had he watched the 2014 Grammy Awards. Pop star Katy Perry wore a dress designed by Valentino. It took 1,600 hours for the bottom half of her dress to be embroidered with notes from one of Verdi’s opera scores.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Verdi’s Requiem” was performed January 19-20, 2023 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore MD 21201 (410-783-8000).
For more information on upcoming BSO concerts, please visit here. Tickets in person: Tues.-Fri. 10 am-5 pm, Sat.-Sun., noon-5 pm. The ticket office is open 60 minutes prior to each performance for walkup sales and through intermission. “Verdi’s Requiem” was also performed on January 21, 2023 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda MD 20852 (1-877-276-1444). The ticket office is open Mon.-Fri., 10 am-5 pm and 60 minutes prior to each performance for walkup sales and through intermission. You can also order tickets at either location online.
If you missed the live performance, you can watch the concert through February 4, 2023 with the Pay-Per-View option here.