Is Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem liturgical music or grand opera? By 1873, when the agnostic composer of larger-than-life music dramas completed his tribute to the memory of novelist Alessandro Manzoni, musicians had been setting religious texts to overtly dramatic music for centuries.
But Verdi’s work blows the lid off this tradition with music as viscerally exhilarating as his showiest operatic climaxes. Huge choral outbursts and pounding drums coexist with moments of breathtaking serenity in what is arguably the greatest choral music of the 19th century.
On Saturday night, conductor Shinik Hahm directed the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the combined choral forces of the Yale Glee Club, Camerata, Freshmen Chorus and four vocal soloists in a powerful but not flawless performance of this transcendent Requiem.
Hahm had his hands full with easily 200 choral singers and instrumentalists before him on the stage of Woolsey Hall, four vocal soloists on stage but out of his line of vision, dozens more choristers in the balconies on either side and even four trumpets behind the audience in the second balcony. As a natural consequence, there were sporadic lapses in the synchronization of the various ensembles, especially between the vocal soloists and the orchestra. On the whole, however, Hahm managed the unwieldy mass of musicians with assurance.
Three of the four soloists are graduates of the Yale School of Music, while the fourth is still a student at the school. Soprano soloist Lori Trustman MUS ’97 began with a distractingly wide vibrato but settled into her voice as the 90-minute Requiem progressed, producing an especially exquisite sound at the top of her range. Mezzo-soprano Emily Golden had the most immediately attractive voice, slightly marred only by a tendency to over-enunciate the final consonant of words ending in “t” (which includes virtually every third-person verb in the Latin text).
Tenor Kevin Hill MUS ’02 had a bright, almost strident sound, which would be out of place in some contexts but was perfect for Verdi’s dramatic, high-energy music. Ding Gao’s relatively lightweight bass-baritone voice was often forced uncomfortably low, but he delivered his frequent solos — in particular the “Mors stupebit” — with convincing emotion.
In general, the orchestral musicians responded enthusiastically to the Requiem’s widely varied moods. They upheld their end of the huge dramatic moments with aplomb; percussionist Terence Li ’04, for example, visibly jumped with every fortissimo stroke of the bass drum during the outbursts of the famous “Dies irae.”
The frequent moments of stillness and repose were somewhat less effective, though. A softer dynamic would have been welcome — for example, during much of the concluding “Libera me.” In addition, Hahm had a tendency to interrupt the flow of slower, more melodic sections of the Requiem with over-shaped lines and brief but distracting silences between phrases.
The most consistently strong contribution came from the assembled choral forces. Their enunciation was impeccable, and their range of volume and affect was easily wide enough to accommodate the multifaceted music. The opening “Requiem aeternam” was hushed and reverential, the following “Dies irae” explosive and nearly hysterical, and the touchingly simple melody of the “Agnus Dei” was delivered with a palpable air of supplication. Lastly, the concluding intricate fugue of the “Libera me” was cleanly articulated, never succumbing to the constant danger of muddiness and musical incomprehensibility.
When this many musicians are assembled under a single conductor in such a large-scale work, imprecision is virtually unavoidable, and Hahm could not quite avoid it. Ensemble coordination occasionally lapsed, and if the sheer force of the performance shook the walls of Woolsey Hall at the appropriate moments, the last degree of hushed stillness was usually absent. All in all, though, this huge collection of musicians produced a dramatically effective rendition of one of the landmarks of 19th-century music.
The same musicians will be performing Verdi’s Requiem April 10 at Carnegie Hall.