When it rains it pours.
Twice this spring Charleston audiences have been treated to performances of the monumental Verdi Requiem, first presented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a special April concert, and now again under the baton of Joseph Flummerfelt, the Spoleto Festival’s artistic director for choral activities, who is ceding his position after years of transition to the very talented Joe Miller.
Flummerfelt, 76, chose to leave the festival on this note because the Requiem has been one of those pieces close to his heart for a long time. And among the initiated, who doesn’t love it?
At TD Arena Thursday night, the Westminster Choir, joined by the CSO Chorus (its recent performance still reverberating in the singers’ ears) and by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, tried to blow the top off the venue, which had been battened down by festival stagehands and acoustician David Greenberg for the occasion.
And they sounded fine, if not especially present in the big space. The special concert shell built for the occasion was a lot better than nothing, but it couldn’t project the music into the arena with adequate focus and intensity.
Nevertheless, patrons were treated to a brisk and beautiful rendition of a work that features divinely hushed moments of spiritual angst and bombastic, full-orchestra flares heralding the “days of wrath.”
Flummerfelt, blessed with a fine chorus and orchestra, and four thoughtful soloists, opted for a somewhat compact interpretation. His tempi were on the quick side, but handled deftly by the singers, who never sounded rushed.
His skills were most apparent when the choral “Sanctus” was sung. The singers performed with crystalline precision, a beautiful tone, perfect diction and a joyous understanding of the Latin text (“Holy, holy, holy … Hosanna in the highest!”)
The piece begins with a shimmering, hushed “Requiem” and “Kyrie,” beautifully sung by the chorus and tightly controlled by Flummerfelt.
It is critical to keep this opening as quiet as possible (though in the arena there’s such a thing as too quiet), both to convey a mood of longing and resignation and to provide the necessary contrast to the next section, the roaring “Dies irae,” which featured two pairs of trumpeters positioned at the top of the arena on either side of the stage, providing a wonderful stereophonic effect.
What ensues is a sequence of aria-like passages for the soloists, who get plenty of boost from the choir and orchestra. Sometimes they sing in duets, trios or as a quartet.
The bright bel canto voice of soprano Jennifer Check, a Westminster Choir alumna, soared easily into the stratosphere. She showed an uncanny ability to sing those high notes with subdued grace, though sometimes an edginess crept in.
Mezzo-sporano Margaret Lattimore had a luxurious tone that stretched across her range with elastic warmth. Tenor Bruce Sledge’s lyricism served him well. He managed those long, elegant phrases with fortitude and impressive control, though he seemed a little uncomfortable at times. And bass Alfred Walker presented a ringing, full-throated voice and provided an excellent foundation for the solo passages.
In some moments blend and intonation flagged, but mostly they sang with gusto and personality. The “Agnus Dei,” an a cappella section featuring Check, Lattimore and chorus, reminiscent of an old chant, was especially lovely.
The Requiem is a work of extremes, alternating between blaring brass and bass drum thwacks and the tranquility of simple prayer. The quietude reaches its apex with the “Requiem aeternam” portion of the “Libera me” section. It features one of the greatest moments for soprano in all of the classical music literature, a simple B-flat octave leap sung extremely softly that, when executed well, lifts everyone in earshot directly to heaven itself.
Check, with her incandescent voice, nailed it.
Verdi’s is the most theatrical of all the requiems by great composers. He had just premiered his opera “Aida” and was riding a growing wave — indeed, fueling the wave — of Italian national pride.
The Requiem, though it delves into spiritual matters, was nevertheless an expression of nationalism. It was first inspired by the death in 1868 of the highly respected Giacomo Rossini, then completed in honor of Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873.
Manzoni’s great novel, “The Betrothed,” helped galvanize Italians struggling to conceive of themselves as a single population with common interests.
More than salvation or damnation, this was what interested Verdi, and what his Requiem strives to convey — the sheer thrill of people making beautiful music together.
The musicians in the arena Thursday night conveyed much more. This performance certainly was about the remarkable operatic legacy of Verdi, as well as the transcendent strains of his great masterpiece. But it was also about the legacy of Flummerfelt, who has helped make Charleston a premier arts destination and who has graced us with glorious singing for more than three decades.
It was also proof that great big classical music performances continue to thrill audiences and thankfully remain at the center of the festival’s diverse programming.
And it was evidence too of the ways in which hard work, commitment, talent and love can lead in the direction of the sublime.
In this sense, it is Flummerfelt who has cast — and will always cast — perpetual light upon us.
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