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Saturday, 08 March 2014 15:21

Concert review: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts a dramatic Verdi 'Requiem' at Powell Hall, Friday and Saturday, March 7 and 8 + Video

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The text of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, with its apocalyptic images of death and redemption, has inspired composers to produce some of their most profound and idiosyncratic work. The Italian operatic master Giuseppe Verdi, while so indifferent to religion that he was effectively an agnostic, was no exception. His 1874 "Messa da Requiem," inspired by the deaths of Rossini and the Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, overflows with brilliantly theatrical moments, from the hair-raising Dies Irae to the heartfelt Recordare and epic Libera Me. A good performance should not spare the drama.

[Learn more about the music with the symphony program notes and my Symphony Preview article.]

The Verdi "Requiem" Friday night by the orchestra, chorus, and soloists under the baton of guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos wasn't just good, it was great. It was passionate, theatrical, moving, and incredibly powerful in every possible way.

The opening Requiem began so softly that it was nearly inaudible, which made the forte "Te decet hymnus" that much more powerful. The Dies Irae was appropriately electrifying, as was the "Tuba mirum," with the four offstage trumpets placed in pairs house left and right, just behind the dress circle boxes. That made for a potent stereo effect for those of us in the dress circle; in the boxes they got surround.

Angel Blue

The celebration of the Sanctus was glorious, the Lux aeterna shimmered with celestial light, and the final Libera me, with its gripping dramatic arc preceding from terror to eternal peace (after a final glimpse of the "day of wrath"), brought this near-perfect "Requiem" to a moving conclusion. The standing ovation was quick and unanimous.

Soloists Angel Blue (soprano), Julia Gertseva (mezzo-soprano), Aquiles Machado (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass) found every ounce of operatic intent in this music. These were authoritatively sung and, more importantly, brilliantly acted interpretations. The soloists do most of the emotional heavy lifting in the "Requiem," so their work can make or break the production overall. These four definitely made it.

Julia Gertseva

In "Liber scriptus proferetur" ("The written book shall be brought forth"), Ms. Gertseva made effective dramatic use of her score, closing it and singing from memory—essentially using it as a prop for the Book of Judgement described in the text. She had many other compelling moments throughout the evening, as well, especially when singing with Ms. Blue. At times the two sang almost as one, often swaying together in response to the emotion of the music.

For her part, Ms. Blue demonstrated that the "shining and agile upper register, smoky middle register, and beautiful timbre" described in her program bio were more factual reporting than hype. There was an impressive body and depth to her voice throughout its range that served her well, especially in the Libera me.

Mr. Machado's entrance on "Hostias et preces tibi, Domine" ("A sacrifice of praise and prayer, O Lord") was ethereally beautiful while his "Ingemisco tumquam reus" ("I groan, as one who is accursed") was ringing and heartfelt. His voice was uniformly clear and focused.


Aquiles Machado

Mr. Zanellato gave us a "Mors stupebit et natura" ("Death shall stun and nature quake") filled with menace and a vivid "Confutatis maledictis," recounting how "the wicked have been confounded, doomed to devouring flames." His voice had a power basses sometimes lack, able to project even that low A at the end of "Mors stupebit."

The orchestra played impeccably, as it so often does. The focus is on the vocal soloists and chorus in the "Requiem," of course, but even so Verdi has provided some nifty little instrumental moments here and there. The plaintive bassoon solo that accompanies the despairing plea for mercy of "Quid sum miser," for example, was touchingly done by Andrew Cuneo. The flute trio (Mark Sparks, Jennifer Nitchman, and Ann Choomack) that accompanies the soprano and mezzo early in the Agnus Dei was a thing of beauty as well. The brass section performed heroically (there's no other word for it) throughout, as did Shannon Wood on tympani and John Kasica on the two massive bass drums.

Amy Kaiser's chorus was, as always, a model of power and precision.

Riccardo Zanellato

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos conducted all this without a score (and, at one puzzling point, without a baton) and with the assurance of someone who has thoroughly internalized this music and made it his own. He's looking a bit frail these days (health issues in recent years have forced him to cancel some concert appearances) but still cuts a magisterial figure on the podium. His conducting style favored small and precise gestures, but aside from what looked like an inadequately cued choral entrance at one point, there was nothing hesitant or—for that matter—small-scale about this performance. This was a full-blooded, impeccably shaped "Requiem" that reminded me of Solti's 1977 recording with the Chicago Symphony (my personal touchstone for this work).

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos will perform the Verdi "Requiem" only one more time: tonight (Saturday, March 8) at 8:00 PM at Powell Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: The performance will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via live web stream.

Finally, a traffic note: MoDOT closed Interstate 64 (Highway 40) from Forest Park Parkway westbound to Kingshighway, and eastbound starting at Hampton at 8 PM Friday. It won't reopen until 3 AM Monday, so those of you planning to get to Grand Center that way will want to allow extra time and possibly look to Google Maps or Mapquest for an alternate route.

Next at Powell Hall: Serious stuff takes a holiday at George Daugherty conducts his the orchestra for "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II" Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16. The regular season resumes when David Robertson conducts the orchestra and violin soloist Gil Shaham in Marshall's Bright Kingdoms, Korngold's Violin Concerto, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"on Friday at 10:30 AM and at 8 PM, and Saturday at 8 PM March 21 and 22. For more information:

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