Well! After 4-5 hours spent with Maestro Montanero on Wednesday, we have a much better idea of how his interpretation of the Verdi Requiem will be different. It’s pathos at the expense of precision, with his desire for outward expressivity delivered through insanely fast tempi, dramatic dynamics and tempo changes, and the emotion we embed in our singing. The overall effect should make for an exciting rollercoaster ride of a performance.
Before we sang a single note, Montanero explained what he was going for with this “religious opera,” as he referred to it. Regardless of what we personally believed in, he said for this piece we needed to truly respect and believe in the God described by this piece, and communicate that belief to the audience through our singing. And by no means should this be a private belief, as if some sort of internalized quiet prayer for salvation. This was raising our hands, looking to the heavens, and shouting, begging, for God to spare us. (“Oh, so Old Testament God,” chorister Laura remarked.)
He reiterated this theme, this reliance on an outward display of pathos, throughout the rehearsal. For the Dies Irae? “God is trying to kill you. When you sing, I want to turn around and see people in the audience running for the exits!” For the Libera me, he suggested, “You are shaking the Judge in front of you by the shoulders, frantically begging him to let you go free.” Very rarely does he go for subtlety: his conducting is fierce and energetic, his attacks are often sudden and dramatic, his tempo changes are as exaggerated as the triple f’s and triple p’s that Verdi put in the score. (In other words? He’s Italian.) This version of the Requiem is all about distilling an intense, passionate pleading through the framework of Verdi’s composition.
The unfortunate side effect of this approach, however, is that we are sacrificing precision for this passion. Maestro Gatti would focus on many details: achieving the right balance for the quantus tremor, or the way he wanted the phrasing of huic ergo articulated across the chorus, or showing exactly what we’d get from him for a cutoff. Whereas Maestro Montanero really just barrels through it all, stopping only to correct us when we didn’t understand what his conducting meant. For instance, he asks for louder and softer by moving faster or slower — still keeping the same tempo, but with broadly exaggerated motions or restrained, hunched-over hand movements. While he’ll point out phrasing or hairpin dynamics that he wants us to represent, such as a dramatic decrescendo he wants in the Rex tremendae, it’s otherwise very hit and miss. What details don’t come from the podium “in the moment” are left up to us, either from what John’s drilled into us or from what’s left over from Gatti — agogic accents in the te decet hymnus passage, phrasings in the fugues, pronouncing salva with three syllables, that sort of thing.
Strangely enough, Maestro Montanero’s conducting is quite clear–and yet it’s still hard to follow. He plays “red light, green light” with his rubato, egging us on to keep up with him in an accelerando and then suddenly slowing down to almost half the note value for a dramatic cadence. There were several times when the chorus, the soloist, and the orchestra would all move to the next note in a phrase at different times because we incorrectly anticipated where he wanted it. There’s no steady drumbeat, and we haven’t yet internalized where he’s going with each phrase. In the end, he’s just not a “choral” conductor, breathing with us, giving us each /t/ and /s/ cutoff, and integrating us with the rest of the ensemble. He isn’t willing us to follow him… he’s daring us to.
That’s particularly true because of the overall speed of the piece. Saying his tempi are a little fast is like saying that Beethoven was a little hard of hearing. Mind you, many of us thought Maestro Gatti’s Dies Irae was a bit too slow, even though we know he was going for something noble and terrible in its majesty. Montanero’s Dies Irae is tremendously exciting, and sounds more like what you hear in movie trailer commercials, when they use that movement as a temporary score. But he doesn’t stop there. The Sanctus is about as fast as I’ve ever heard it. And the ending fugue? It’s like running down a steep hill and hoping you don’t trip. During the rehearsal, it was Survivor: Fugue Island and less prepared chorus members kept getting “voted off” as they tried to find their place. Forget that God is trying to kill us — if he doesn’t, at this speed, Montanero will! Often when playing an instrument or singing, a performer thinks ahead maybe a half-measure or so to know what’s coming next. Here, we just have to keep executing, relying on muscle memory to get through it all!
These complaints would make it sound like this was going to be a train wreck of a performance. But you know what? It won’t be, and here’s why. It’s an overdependence on those precise details, making our picky brains feel more in control of what we’re producing, that get in the way of communicating the essence of a piece. This isn’t Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. And if a singer worries about every cutoff and note value, he or she may fail to deliver the musicality and the emotional payload intrinsic to the music. My wife recorded a brief snippet of the Dies Irae from the lawn during the orchestra rehearsal just so I could hear it. The uniformity of sound, excitement, and drama that travels beyond the stage creates goose bumps. The emotion trumps the technical. We may not ever feel fully in control during this piece, but I think by embracing the passion that Montanero wants us to live and breathe and sing, we’re going to take the audience for one helluva ride on Saturday night.