Picture it18th century composer is feverishly, literally and figuratively, composing a master work on commission that will outlive himliterally and figuratively. While many of us remember Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award winning-play “Amadeus,” and the Oscar Award-winning movie, that highly fictionalized version of Mozart cannot hold a candle to the Master who created the Requiem. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), however, illuminated that brilliant work, as the center piece of its performances, ranging over the weekend of the Ides of March, and to amazing effect.
This program was put in place more than a year ago, and beginning with Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus,” Köchel 618, the Montclair State University Singers set the tone for this sacred work that was a gift for his friend Anton Stoll for the Feast of Corpus Christi. This motet is truly a gift for us all and this performance marked the NJSO premiere of the work.
Next up was Joseph Rheinberger’s “Abendlied” for a cappella chorus, conducted by Heather J. Buchanan, director of the Montclair State University Singers. Rheinberger was well known during the Romantic period in Germany, in the late 1800s, as a brilliant composer who had many students. He often turned back to the Classical era and farther, and this piece has the forms of Renaissance harmonies, nodding specifically to Palestrina. The glorious counterpoint brought tears to my eyes and the clarity of the voices, combined with the beauty of their flex and resolution, is deliciously frictive, then purely peaceful, earning its name of “Evening Song.”
Much more contemporary music was on tap next, also a cappella, from Ben Parry. The lights were lowered to near perfect darkness, including the stage. A new experience for many of us, it set expectation perfectlywhat was to happen next? Slowly, a light came up very dimly, illuminating Dr. Buchanan. She cued the Singers, still swathed in darkness, and Parry’s “Flame” began. “Flame” is only one of several works that Parry has produced with Garth Bardsley, the aptly named poet. Bardsley finished the poem and Parry set it immediately to music. As the chorus beganliterally one voice, then two, then morecandles were litfirst one, then another, then doublinguntil the entire body of singers was gently illuminated with their light. One light shining in the darkness, soon became many. Such, the text tells us, it is with happiness. The inspiration was Buddha’s wordshappiness never decreases by being shared. Truly a message for these troubled times.
The program progressed as a beautifully flowing stream, with no intermission. The time was upon us for the fruition of the eveningMozart’s Requiem, Köchel 626, completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The appetizers consumed, we were ready for the main course.
The soloists for this event were Emily Pogorelc, soprano, and Kendra Broom, mezzo-soprano, both of whom studied at the Curtis Institute; two-time Grammy nominee Roy Hage, who took tenor honors; while another Curtis Masters candidate, baritone Dogukan Kuran, rounded out the all-star lineup. Mozart was given the commission to write the Requiem under somewhat mysterious circumstances. While we now know the commission originated with wannabe composer, Austrian Count Franz von Walsegg-Stupach, one of the Count’s men was the agent to whom Mozart spoke. The Count frequently commissioned works that he would later literally copy and assert were his own. When his wife died, he wanted a Requiem in her honor and the commission was born. It is hard to imagine that someone in his 30s writing a Requiem would take it so personally, but Mozart became convinced that the Count’s agent was actually a supernatural being. He came to believe he was writing the Requiem for himself. In an odd feat of self-fulfilling prophecy, he was right.
Mozart composed the work up through and including the “Lacrimosa.” The remainder was finished by Süssmayr from Mozart’s sketches. From the beginning, the music generates chills, the fine velous hairs on your arms raise and, when the Kyrie ends with the singers almost plosively spitting the final “Kyrie,” you are all in for the brilliantly dramatic. The “Dies irae” goes even further, almost as chase music for a thriller. The “Tuba mirum” used the dark fullness of Kuran’s baritone while Hage’s tenor was dramatically passionate. Broom’s mezzo was richly hued stained glass with late afternoon sun shinking through and Pogorelc’s soprano was power and beauty of tone. Mozart’s quartets rank the highest in my pantheon of vocal achievement and in this work, they are sublime.
What did I enjoy the most? The “Lacrimosa’”s ups and downs are like the beating of a heart, with a thrilling use of dynamics, as Music Director Xian Zheng exhorted the orchestra, soloists and chorus to their greatest synergy. The “Domine Jesu” seems so much lighter than what went before, and that’s where Süssmayr takes up the torch as Mozart passes, literally and figuratively. The “Hostias” shows pastoral elegance, while the “Sanctus” seems like a victory celebration, yet the cadence of the voice leading seems less smooth. The “Benedictus,” led by mezzo Broom, then soprano Pogorelc, moves with alacrity, and then comes the beautiful quartet, with baritone Kuran sounding forward in his tone, and tenor Hage using his upper register, and all were delightful, with the women’s voices especially beautifully together. Perhaps expectedly, in the Communion we led off with Pogorelc’s solo, with beautifully articulated dynamic changes that added even more drama. Sharp vocal attack gives that passionate plosive again and almost seems to be “sampling” Handel’s “And He shall purify.” But then, we all know that allusion is the most sincere form of flattery and acknowledgement. This was a thoroughly satisfying outing and it could only have happened as one continuous statement. Mozart’s end was our beginning, and the Requiem whets the appetite for more.
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