Oratorio Society of New York 2019 Review: Verdi’s Messa da Requiem
An Incredibly Riveting & Potent Experience At Carnegie HallBy David Salazar
Verdi’s Requiem is one of the most powerful pieces of music ever created. When performed to its maximum expression it can be a transformative experience, one full of fear, intense, suffering, but even hope.
The Oratorio Society of New York performed the masterpiece at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, May 9, 2019, in a performance that was undeniably potent, though perhaps too much at times.
Under the baton of Maestro Kent Tritle, the cello entrance that initiates the work was sublime, the pianissimo markings observed with a whisper of sound. The slow tempo here gave the opening phrase expansiveness that was only furthered by the longer rests in between. The sounds of the chorus’ first “Requiem” were truly sotto voce and the sound slowly built measure to measure. What was rather interesting was how we could already sense the violent nature of Tritle’s interpretation from the Violin’s phrases. Verdi’s score calls for accents on the half notes. Often times, all we hear is a slight bit of added weight to the notes, but the accents here were far clearer. If they made the phrase slightly less connected as a result, it certainly added tension to the music that is often overlooked.
Throughout this opening passage, a crescendo came rapidly and suddenly, giving the music immediacy. It was a riveting start to this massive piece.
A Lot of Power
And while there is no denying similar beauty throughout the remainder of the evening, there seemed to be an increased emphasis on voluminous potency. When the “Dies Irae” kicked off, you couldn’t ask for more. The hall was shaking from the avalanche of sound, especially when the bass drum blows came; the hits came so hard that you worried for the longevity of the instrument. But it was spine-chilling and Tritle was able to conjure up similar violence and energy throughout the night, making for a very loud Requiem.
The “Tuba Mirum” was equally wondrous in this regard, the crescendo simply growing until you felt like some revelation opening up before you. And the apex of the “Salva me” was sublime in its voluminous potential; a similar level of musical catharsis came at the very end of the “Libera Me,” with the soprano rising to a high C natural. There are undeniably moments where experiencing this cataclysmic wall of sound can add to the experience, though the balance wasn’t always to the benefit of other musical passages.
Details would often get lost in certain sections, such as syncopations in the violins during the “Offertorium” that help build the momentum. It wasn’t a consistent issue, but it did muddle up some of the music making.
Perhaps what was most problematic about the overall potency of the orchestra was how it tended to cover the singers in many sections. Tritle brought on a solid group of soloists, though many of the voices tended toward slimmer sizes. A corresponding adjustment would have supported the singers further, but the result was often not in the favor of the soloist.
Sometimes this forced the singers to really go for it in a way they might not have had to with a lighter orchestra. This was best exemplified with soprano Elizabeth de Trejo who really used up every last bit of her vocal resources to drive her voice throughout the “Libera Me.” In a movement full of existential pleading and longing, having the artist forced to do musical battle with the orchestra actually adds wonderfully to the drama.
But the same cannot be said for Adam Lau throughout the “Confutatis.” This is a passage that resides exceedingly low for the bass, and if the orchestra is overly strong, it can wash away his legato lines. It didn’t happen the whole time, but it did have an impact.
That said, on the whole, Tritle’s approach undeniably made this requiem far less predictable and all the more exciting.
As for the soloists, they were a solid core.
Rich Singing All Around
De Trejo had her fair share of gorgeous moments throughout the evening, particularly during “Quid sum miser” and throughout “Salva me;” in the latter passage, her voice soared over the massive ensemble. She dovetailed nicely with mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis throughout the “Recordare” and their voices were in perfect synchronization throughout the “Agnus Dei.” All night long, she moved up and down her register with ease, her upper notes projecting potently over the orchestra.
However, “Libera Me” is the soprano’s big moment to shine and De Trejo was sublime throughout. From the opening line, there was desperation in her singing. Even if her bottom didn’t quite have tremendous heft, she made up for it with clear diction and intensity. There was increasing fear in her face throughout this passage, her singing growing more potent. She hit one high note after another, blasting through the tremolos that follow the “Dies Irae” and eventually climaxing it all with a glorious and cathartic high C rocketing over a full orchestra and chorus.
But the most glorious moment of singing came during the reprisal of the first “Requiem” theme. Here De Trejo delivered a pure and delicate legato line that was exquisite in every way. Verdi asks for increasingly softer dynamics, getting to a pppp at one point near the end of the passage. De Trejo’s voice retained its gentleness throughout, her final high B flat floating effortlessly into the hall.
Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis presented a rather threatening vocal interpretation. Her singing had fullness that projected beautifully into Carnegie Hall, but what made her interpretation so riveting was her way with the text. “Liber Scriptus” was horrifying, the mezzo imbuing it with increased aggression. This was most present in her repeats of “Nil,” which almost reminded you of Iago’s repeated “E poi” at the end of his “Credo.” But here, each “Nil” had increased accentuation, the last one almost spoken.
Later on in the “Lacrymosa,” she delivered a riveting crescendo as she sang the vocal signs accompanying the bass solo. She slowly built each one up until it blossomed into a glorious crescendo on the F naturals on “Dies illa.” Another passage of remarkable beauty was the Lux Aeterna, where her legato on the very first phrase of the movement was remarkable for its fluidity.
Tenor Joshua Blue displayed a generous tenor sound that always sounded rather at ease with Verdi’s complex lines. From his very first entrance on “Kyrie,” he displayed great confidence and clarity in his singing. “Ingemisco” did not necessarily explore the vulnerability, but it had such a fluidity of line and built up perfectly throughout its structure that it retained your attention. He also displayed a versatility throughout the Offertorium, particularly in how he crescendoed throughout the “Hostias,” only to provide a subtle but effective diminuendo on the trill that concludes the opening passage.
Bass Adam Lau has a beautiful and polished sound, though it perhaps didn’t quite register in some of the darker episodes of the Requiem, such as the opening of “Confutatis” or “Mors stupebit.” But when all he had to do was ride the line, such as “Oro suplex” and “Requiem aeternam (during the “Lux Aeterna”),” he did with elegance and ease. In these passages about seeking comfort, it was impossible to be in better hands vocally speaking.
On the whole, the Oratorio Society of New York’s interpretation of this masterwork was a riveting experience full of intense drama and some truly glorious vocalism.