There are times when it just all comes together, when the total is greater than the sum of its parts.
Saturday night at the Midland Center for the Arts was one of those times, as the Midland Symphony Orchestra brought together myriad forces for an extraordinary performance of Verdi's Requiem. Conductor Carlton Woods and the Symphony, with the help of the Music Society Chorale and the Central Michigan University Choir, took the almost-capacity house on an evocative ride through one of choral music's most exciting scores.
Even with so much promise, the opening couple of minutes were not an especially great harbinger. The first distraction was when Woods inexplicably had the combined choirs stand, en masse, exactly on the downbeat of the first measure of the piece. No matter how quietly such a large group were to try, there must inevitably be noise as they arise, and that noise was particularly jarring over the soft intonings of the lower strings which begin the work. Why not have them stand, wait for silence, and then begin?
That, plus clearly audible conversations by the ushers, heard distinctly over the gentle string playing, wafted in from the hallways just as the orchestra was attempting to set a somber and mournful mood. But all settled down soon, however, and the quiet choral and orchestral sections of the opening "Requiem aeternam" settled over the audience like a velvet mantle.
By contrast, the apocalyptic "Dies Irae" (most recently co-opted by Madison Avenue to sell cars; does Verdi get royalties?) was at once thrilling and foreboding, giving both orchestra and chorus the opportunity to paint appropriately terrifying pictures of the Day of Wrath.
It's not particularly special to be able to play or sing loud, but to play and sing musically, accurately, and with warm vocal precision in the fortissimo range is rare as it is wonderful. Similarly, it is equally memorable to be able to do this, plus bring the audience to rapt attention, when singing at the softest levels.
While it was true that a few sections challenged the combined choirs, such as the fugal introduction to the "Sanctus," for most of the evening the choirs met and exceeded all of these challenges, throughout the entire dynamic range, giving truly engaging and disciplined performances. Clearly, the choirs had been masterfully prepared by James Hohmeyer and Nina Nash-Robertson, whose names were unforgivably left off the program page.
The Midland Symphony also rose to the challenges of this mighty work, not only in raising the decibel and heart rate levels majestically when call upon, but also demonstrating some of the most carefully and intricately detailed playing they have done in recent memory. Woods brought out some singularly poetic playing from the ranks of the strings and winds, and unlike times in the orchestra's past, the brass were clarion and uplifting, not simply loud for loud's sake.
Another highlight of the concert were the four vocal soloists. For most of the evening, Kathleen Clawson's mezzo garnered top prize for her warm and resonant solos, as she soared with golden, radiant tones and transcendent lyrical vision. Tenor Michael Lockley's soulful, lyric, and full-throated singing served his part well, even in the devilishly high and difficult "Ingemisco." Bass David Brundage had a colorful voice that spoke beautifully in reserved tones, particularly in the haunting repetition of "Mors... Mors..." (Death... death).
Soprano Susan Marie Pierson's true light was hidden for much of the work, mostly because Verdi reserves his best writing for the soprano until she is most needed, the hauntingly brilliant "Libera me," sung so passionately by Lynn Dawson at Princess Diana's funeral.
From the first chant-like prayer of the section, through a range of inspiring, thrilling, soul-searching emotions, down to the final haunting, goose-bumping repeat of the opening phrase, Pierson brought the work together and uplifted all that had preceded with a clear, blazing, majestic voice that is perhaps still ringing through the auditorium.
One large oversight was the lack of printed texts and translations for the Requiem. Perhaps not everyone in the audience has the liturgy memorized, or could tell that what soprano Pierson was so beautifully singing was "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda." But surely knowing that it meant "Save me, Lord, from death eternal in that terrible day" would have made the setting of the words and her delivery all the more real and powerful.
On the whole, however, it was a stellar evening, almost as if the Midland Symphony were saving its finest, most musical and moving playing for the season finale.