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Verdi Requiem May 2009

Sweeping religious music goes operatic : Theme of liberation at the heart of Choral Society’s Requiem performance

May 19 2009

JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

Though immortalized as one of history’s greatest opera composers, in Requiem, Guiseppi Verdi created one of the greatest and most enduring classics of the choral music repertoire, particularly among major 19th century choral works. Even so, as requiems go, Verdi’s has flexible functions.

In fact, the composer had ambivalent religious convictions. He’d begun the major piece more modestly and, thus, brought a freer expressive elan to Mass. In coloring the piece with aspects of his operatic vocabulary, the work transcended the conventions and protocols of standard liturgical music.

Given its backdrop, Verdi’s Requiem appeals to a broad-based audience and lends itself to wide-ranging associations. As grandly presented by the Santa Barbara Choral Society on Saturday night at The Granada, Verdi’s Requiem came equipped with dual dedications.

Officially, the performance commemorated the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin (in the Czech Republic), the infamous “model camp” that housed a large population of artists and where Verdi’s Requiem was led 16 times by Raphael Schaechter, before he and his fellow musicians would be killed. Locally and topically, the performance also was dedicated to the heroic efforts of first responders in the recent, ravaging Jesusita Fire, with Sheriff Bill Brown and the American Red Cross’ David Alameda accepting the dedication from The Granada stage.

For this ambitious, 90-minute occasion, the stage was nearly brimming over with the massive aggregation of the Choral Society, the large orchestra and four fine soloists led by the group’s director, Joanne Wasserman. It was delivered with a generally impressive, dramatic sweep and focus, marshalling the necessarily elements for achieving the spirit of a grand but personally moving musical event.

Verdi designed his Requiem with the sensibilities of an opera conceptualist, lining the traditional context with dynamic extremes and touches of drama along the way. In the extended Sequence section — a piece in itself — a spatial element is inserted by the placement of the brass in the balcony. A bracingly loud dynamic level drops suddenly to a pianissimo hush, for bass-baritone Michael Gallup’s solo.

Dramatic contrasts prevail throughout the topography of the Mass. In the Offertorio, a showcase for the soloists — also including Santa Barbara-bred tenor Eduardo Villa, soprano Erica Strauss and mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen — suddenly zooms in vocal powers in the Sanctus, a thicket-like fugue for the massed choral forces. In the final “Libera Me” section, from whence Verdi’s project started, Ms. Strauss’ solo part leads with awakening abruptness to a most vigorous sonic blast, with all the sound the full chorus and orchestra can muster.

As required by any solid treatment of Verdi’s masterpiece, the Choral Society’s reading lavished both grand gestural ideas and fine points. It can be illuminating and also culturally important to experience this grand work in its uninterrupted entirety — in the heat and magnitude of a strong live performance — to really get at its inherent profundity.

This proved to be a full and diverse Saturday night musical experience, fleetingly spiritual and, at times, downright operatic.