This season, the Central Ohio Symphony is celebrating its 40th year. As was the case last fall and winter, the March spring concert began with a 40-second fanfare. New York composer Ben Goldberg, a regular collaborator, wrote the brief piece. It involves not only brass but also additional wind, string, and percussion instruments. In fact, Goldberg made a deliberate effort to include and introduce the many instruments that would be on hand to perform the magnum opus of the evening, Guiseppe Verdi’s “Requiem.” His composition, the fifth piece he has created for the Symphony, is “a high-energy uplifting work that celebrates the orchestra and its mission.” Goldberg’s fanfaric showpiece was reminiscent of restless waves that swelled and crested several times, fearlessly and effectively mixing traditional with modern, 20th-century elements.
Verdi’s “Requiem,” sung entirely in Latin, is a solemn, majestic work that demands much not only from the orchestra, choir, and soloists, but also a certain level of commitment and maturity from the audience. Happily, everyone was up to the challenge. In fact, the ticket office did not have to worry about lackluster sales at all. The concert was practically sold out days before the scheduled performance.
On stage were not only the many musicians from the orchestra itself, but also two choirs comprising over 100 male and female singers – OWU’s Choral Art Society under the direction of Jason Hiester and Capriccio Columbus under Larry Griffin. Four soloists were also at hand – soprano Keyona Willis, mezzo-soprano Emily Spencer, tenor John D. Nevergall, and bass Michael Young. The stage was tightly packed.
The concert program stated that Verdi did not intend his “Requiem” to be a religious Mass. Instead, he wanted to express his grief over the death of his admired older role models Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). However, the structure of the mass suited his purposes well, although he took certain freedoms and deviated from standard church liturgy. The entire work has multiple elements. The center piece, consisting of nine sections, is the “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”),” a medieval poem that describes the Day of Judgment. On that day of reckoning, everything is revealed and no one will go unpunished. Even the just man is barely innocent and safe, the poem says. Eternal damnation and everlasting fire down in Hell await all those who are condemned. Man’s only hope and salvation is God’s mercy.
Verdi’s haunting music reflects the fear and trembling that saturates the poem. Dramatic trumpets and drums summon the mortals to the fateful day of vengeance where their just punishment will be meted out. Other passages are more subdued and quiet, but no less free of anguish and agony. During those moments the contrite desperately plead with God to grant them forgiveness for their transgressions. They also praise God and his son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to redeem and deliver us flawed and fallible people. Verdi’s “Requiem” is certainly a personal statement of loss and grief, but it is not the impression of this reviewer that Verdi intended his mass solely as a way to lionize the passing of the cultural icons of his age. The bleak text and funereal music are focused on death and despair. The more joyful and exuberant parts of a traditional Latin Mass are deliberately omitted. Major keys are used sparingly. There is no foretaste of Heaven’s delights. If you compare the pessimistic work with Richard Strauss’ celebratory “A Hero’s Life,” it is clear that Verdi had something else in mind. Perhaps he feared that Italy’s Risorgimento (revival and rebirth) would forever remain a dream. Italy – like Germany – saw its political unification in 1871, but it was a truncated one that excluded many ethnic Italians and left irredentist nationalists disenchanted. Verdi’s “Requiem” is not a religious work in the conventional sense, but it is “sacred” music nevertheless because, for the patriotic composer, his fatherland was the highest authority, and he feared that in the judgment of history Italy would be forever doomed.
It is ultimately not clear what the composer’s intention was, and it probably does not even matter. Future generations may see the “Requiem” in the context of climate change – a warning that we must change our egregious ways. What is clear, however, is that Verdi’s “Requiem” is an enduring masterpiece. That the Symphony has now conquered this spiritual and emotional magnum opus is a milestone in its forty-year history. Under the baton of Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos the orchestra performed at a phenomenally high level of professionalism. The double choir complemented the instrumentalists with their angelic voices. Care had been taken to find the right blend of guest soloists whose voices would flow together. Each had distinctive qualities and sang with youthful fervor and vigor, yet the stentorian voices of the men and the radiant voices of the women melted together with grace. The orchestra, choristers, and soloists achieved a finely tuned balance and formed a harmonious whole where no part would silence and erase the other. Performing such a large, complex work with close to 200 musicians on stage required an enormous amount of control, discipline, and strength, but Maestro Morales-Matos was up to the task.
The Central Ohio Symphony has no “dies irae” to fear. The “liber scriptum” of this judge notes few transgressions. The “lacrimae” flowing in the audience were tears of passion, not of despair. There were a few minor and insignificant instances when everything went splendidly during rehearsals, but due to stress some impurities sneaked in during the performance. It happens in the best orchestras of the world. At one point, the enthusiastic maestro lost his baton but kept on conducting as if nothing had happened. During the next pause, it was quietly handed back to him. The incident had no impact on the music whatsoever.
The Symphony has one more concert coming up. On April 27, there will be a ”Local Focus.” Works include George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Frank Lee Ruggles film “Expedition” with compositions by Jennifer Jolley and Lauren Spavelko, and Anton Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Hope to see all of you there!
Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.