Tag Archives: Verdi Requiem

Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem

As I once wrote elsewhere, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation our chorus seeks – the applause of the audience is sufficient reward, and in the end we sing to scratch our own creative itches, to know we had a hand in making the music come alive.  That said, I’ve found it helpful to review the reviews and weigh the comments of the critics against my own experiences.  These days we typically get comments from three publications:

Jeremy Eichler of the Globe was unusually complimentary and keenly accurate in his observations, impressed by Gatti’s fluid, poised conducting, and attention to musical details:

From the hushed opening bars, Gatti drew out long singing lines from the orchestra, while also clearly prizing textural and rhythmic clarity. He showed a knack for organic tempo choices and transitions that captured the full drama and, at times, fury of this remarkable score. The same might be said of his conducting of the Tanglewood Chorus, which sang superbly, its performance in the Dies Irae duly terrifying yet free of stridency, its Sanctus measured with a welcome dignified gait[…]  The BSO as a whole seemed alert and highly responsive to Gatti’s direction.

I agree with him calling out the responsiveness of the orchestra to the “organic tempo choices”–I’d call Gatti’s frequent rubato, dramatic fermata, and fluidity the defining factor of his time on the podium.  I love Eichler’s observations on the Sanctus, because it means we delivered on Gatti’s previous direction to sing it “with respect.”  It’s satisfying to get that independent validation of our ability to communicate something so intangible.

Eichler also correctly noted that the quartet was “capable but uneven,” preferring the mezzo’s voice the most, but complimenting the female Agnus Dei duet.  Amusingly, he professed confusion over our leaping to our feet several times for our big forte interruptions–and the next night, we cut one of those leaps to make things a little less frantic.  He wasn’t the only one who saw it as a problem.

Brian Jones wrote up our Friday performance in the Boston Music Intelligencer, and almost loved it:  “In retrospect, this was a performance to admire in so many ways that I wish I could say I was as deeply moved as one hopes to be with this splendid music.”  On top of his praise for the soloists he lobbed fair criticisms about the soprano’s odd vowel modifications and the bass’s lack of power.  And it’s clear he noted the responsiveness in dynamics, tone, and tempo between us and the maestro:

His sensitive reading of the score brought forth many lucid and musical moments, and great credit goes to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for just the right hushed sound here,  or magnificent triumph there. The utter security of singing from memory makes the chorus’s contribution even more significant. Maestro Gatti also conducted without a score.

[…]The other movements were mostly beautiful, and handled with the appropriate degree of intensity and reflection. Gatti made perfect sense of the famous opening bars, with their legendary, hushed iterations of “Re-qui-em,”, and his use of rubato was appropriate and compelling. (One interesting touch in the second movement was as the chorus actually spoke the words “quantus tremor” (“how great a terror”): I had never heard that effect before, and it worked. The Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were given much better tempos, although orchestra, chorus and soloists occasionally threatened to slip off the tracks. Several expressive moments in the Lux Aeterna went by with little recognition, but the final movement (“Libera Me”) was the highlight of the evening, and beautifully conceived.

However, noticing them does not mean approving of them.  Despite his praise above, overall he did not seem to care for Gatti’s frequent tempo shifts:

The famous requiems of Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, Faure and a few others present interesting interpretive challenges: so many musicians and listeners are familiar with them that conductors often feel the need to “leave their mark” in ways which sometimes stretch and even snap the threads of musical line for which these works are justifiably noted. Gatti’s approach was most successful in all the shorter movements, but in the second, long movement his tendency to take extra time with breaks in the music, as well as his tempo in the famous “Dies Irae” music (too slow to achieve the gripping drama of those repeated notes and triplets), made the long second movement seem even longer than should have been the case. Many of the numerous sections of this movement were handsomely dealt with, but the overall architecture and sense of line suffered.

I’ve noticed many reviewers similarly criticize an interpretation of a performance if it didn’t match their own favorite version.  While I understand Jones’s commentary on “activist conductors,” I’m pretty sure Gatti’s extra time was borne not out of an egotistic desire to claim the piece as his own, but rather out of a true love for the music and how he conceives it.  I had never heard the Dies Irae that deliberate myself, but while Jones said it sacrifices the gripping drama, I’d say it’s a welcome trade off that allows the internal lines to sing through–it  creates an overall effect that’s even more terrifying than bulldozing through the whole thing.

Finally, David Wright spoke of our opening night performance at Boston Classical Review.  I hesitate to even include him, given his inexplicably contrarian review of our Brahms Requiem, but he has occasionally given passable commentary.  He continues with his usual questionable, attack-filled observations again, suggesting that we lacked diction and rhythmic drive in the Sanctus, claiming the chorus “sounded more like a crowd scene than a chamber choir,” and later calling us “a firm, unobtrusive presence in its supporting role.”   I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s referring to passages where we sing under the soloists.  That said, he did praise our “gusto” for the Dies Irae and the Lacrymosa, and I’d say he was spot on in his observations of the soloists’ strengths and weaknesses individually and as a quartet.  He also wrote well of Gatti’s stewardship:

Throughout the evening, Daniele Gatti’s firm hand could be felt shaping every aspect of the performance, from the almost inaudible opening bars to the soft, measureless chanting of Libera me at the close, and all the high drama in between.

I like the philosophy that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”  The commonalities in all three reviews confirm that this was truly a marvelous performance, distinguished by Gatti’s fluid direction, a challenged but still enjoyable quartet of soloists, and some of the chorus’s most attentive, dedicated singing.  Bravo all, and let’s do it again for Andris Nelsons in the summer!

Self-Review: Verdi Requiem Opening Night

Our opening night performance was everything we wanted it to be: powerful, emotional, and expressive.  It was a night to be quite proud of.

The chorus achieved everything we set out to do — we stayed locked in on Maestro Gatti’s direction the whole time.  We got that cupa hollowness in the beginning.  We expanded ourselves as instruments to get the Hall-shattering triple-f for the Dies Irae.  We made the soft parts very personal to us.  We delivered and fulfilled the vision in Maestro’s head.

Some moments really gave me chills.  The climactic crescendo of the Tuba mirum, for instance, delivered on its promise of the trumpet-scattering tombs.  The Sanctus double fugue was tidy and, yes, respectful, and the final fugue was forcefully delivered with authority.  And for some reason, the second dona eis requiem verse of the fifth movement really hit home.  It felt like the most intimate, genuine supplication  to the heavens, a prayer begging for acknowledgement.

Maestro Gatti had even more surprises for us in the performance — we had to stay super-focused on him the entire time to watch for the occasional rubato or accelerando so we could stay with him.  He put in yet even more of these for dramatic effect — he was so physically and emotionally invested in communicating to us what he wanted that his every move had meaning.  As such, we were able to respond to a finger raise as much as a ginormous punch into the air.   He was not shy in reminding us of his requests from rehearsals and coaching us further mid-performance.  I hadn’t realized that he had the entire score memorized and could therefore conduct from the podium with the same attention and freedom to react that we had.  What a difference it made.

What, if anything, could be criticized?  Afterwards, a chorister jokingly referred to “the five soloists on stage,” meaning that Maestro Gatti was so demonstrative up there that he may have been stealing the show.  Would you believe he even shushed the soloists at one point, because they weren’t heeding his direction to sing softly fast enough?  He had a lot of grunts and exhales and even faint singing at a few points.  Some might find all that distracting; I found it endearing.

But there’s always room for improvement.  I don’t think we achieved some of the  triple-p moments that we did in rehearsal — we can touch on some of those passages even more gently to create a more sacred space.  I personally had a little mini-solo when I accidentally tried to double a tenor part; a relic of a previous performance with another crew that had twice as many basses as tenors.  I’m sure we’ll get a few minor adjustments and reminders at tonight’s warmup.  Other than that, however, I think we nailed it, and for the remaining performances I would only hope to commit even further to the piece so we can stay focused on creating another winning night.

You can’t go wrong with the Verdi Requiem; it’s a crowd pleaser any night, with any chorus, in any venue.  But the raucous applause and triple-bow standing ovation told me that the audience felt just as strongly that what they had witnessed was something special.

The Finer Points of Achieving Gatti’s Verdi Vision

Some of the coaching and techniques that Maestro Gatti suggested were new to me.  Here are the ones that stood out:

  • “Sing for yourself.”  That was his direction to achieve the dynamics for some of the triple-p and quadruple-p passages.  I’ve often heard to sing to the back wall of the hall for loud passages, but this was great for singing softly.
  • “Dües Ürae.”  To achieve the darker color he wanted, Gatti told us to sing the /i/ in some of our quieter Dies Irae interjections as a /ü/  .It sure surprised me how well this worked.  After all, a darker color is often achieved by moving your lips forward, and to make an /ü/ you basically make an /i/ with your lips pursed like an /o/.  He also had the sopranos modify the /i/ vowel to an /a/ for their descending chromatic passage, because otherwise, “it sounds like a mosquito.”
  • “Saleva me.”  How many syllables in “Salva” ?  Apparently the answer is three.  Gatti wants the /l/ in salva so prominent that we’re actually putting a shadow vowel in after it to promote it.  This is quite noticeable on the cascading salva me across the chorus toward the end of the second movement.  Gatti got a laugh telling us to sound like Pavarotti and then imitating him, but I must say, it totally makes you sound like you’re a native Italian with that vowel in there.
  • Quantus tremor.  The Quantus tremor passage in the piece occurs right before the antiphonal trumpets and the rest of the brass come crashing in for the climactic Tuba mirum.  In past performances, the chorus I’ve been in has been told to sing it sotto voce, with almost no tone at all, giving it this creepy foreboding sense of wonder and doom.  Great.  Well, Gatti did something amazing with it.  He has the basses quiet but with normal intonation… the tenors with half-intonation… and the altos and sopranos just whisper the words with no intonation.  Then as the passage progresses the tenors bring in more intonation and the ladies step up to half-intonation.  The result is a bottom-heavy, darker, more dramatic effect that had us all looking at each other and nodding our heads to acknowledge how well that worked.
  • Respect the Sanctus.  The Sanctus fourth movement is an oddity in the piece.  Double chorus, cascading fugue-like entrances,  trumpets blaring a triumphant C, dancing strings, bouncy passages–it’s all very unlike the somber character of the rest of the piece.  I’ve always just sung it as a hectic madcap race to the ending with some beautiful transitional passages in the middle.  Usually the problem is just being heard above the orchestra.  Well, Maestro Gatti’s spin on that passage is to “sing it with respect.”  I like it — it keeps your enthusiasm in check so you don’t feel like a kid running around in church during a funeral.  I think communicating that respect will come through to the audience.  (We’ll see, once we add the orchestra and the battle for audibility begins.)
  • Reining in the sopranos.  At the quiet point of the Sanctus, the first chorus holds beautiful sustained chords while the second chorus interjects with prolonged Hosannas.  The sopranos tend to dominate this chord simply because of the range of their notes.  He hammered them a few time to sneak up on the note and barely articulate it so that their notes wouldn’t dominate the rest of the parts by virtue of their position in their passaggio.
  • No misterioso.  We started singing through the piece with that first hushed re-qui-em, and Gatti came back to that immediately after our first minute of sing through.  At the time, I thought we had just the right air of mystery and wonder that I’ve put into those notes in the past.  No, no misterioso, he said.  He wants these parts to be very reflective, very internalized, full of sorrowness and sighing.  He told us to get rid of the big rolled R that would normally go there, calling it out of style.
  • Sits and stands.  Maestro Gatti destroyed our sit and stand schedule, which called for us staying up for most of the first two movements, sitting only for the third and sixth movements which are all solo.  No, he wants the more dramatic visual of us leaping up one beat before our big Dies irae reprises and the Rex tremendae majestatis entrance.  We practiced it a few times.  It’s not very natural or conductive for singing dolcissimo, but fortunately none of those passages call for that — they’re all harsh, coarse entrances that favor power over finesse.

Whether you’re coming to hear us this week, or a connoisseur of Verdi, or  performing it yourself in the future, you’ll probably appreciate these touches and how they can shape the chorus for this piece.

Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

I’m often amazed at how there’s always something more to get out of a piece, even one that I’m already intimately familiar with like the Verdi Requiem.

First, let’s take the two rehearsals with John Oliver.  In my last post, I talked about how we had focused on the technical aspects of singing the piece under Bill Cutter’s tutelage.  The difference when John stepped up to the podium and began conducting was palpable.  It was immediately clear that we all were doing some lazy singing–or at least lazy interpreting–because John was immediately asking for things just by the way he conducted, and we were able to deliver them.  Even then, though John’s rehearsals were focused on tactical concerns… but it was tactical approaches to getting the emotion into the piece.  Pause here and here…  put a break before this subito piano so that the audience can hear the dynamic jump and the forte passage preceding it doesn’t run over the change.  There’s usually a stentando here, but watch the conductor to find out how he observes it.   That sort of thing.

But when Maestro Gatti took the podium last night, we went a level even deeper, focused a lot on color.  Color is a strange musical term; defined only as the quality of the tone, but it’s so weird to use a visual concept for an audio one–and talking about a “darker” color doesn’t help!  But Gatti made us start several passages over and over again until we got the color just the way he wanted it.  As one bass commented to me on the way back to the rehearsal room, “It’s clear he hears the piece a certain way in his head, and he won’t stop until we match that.”

By the end of Maestro Gatti’s piano rehearsal on Monday night, we had a very specific version of the Verdi Requiem in our heads.  One that is not misterioso (which is how I’m used to singing the Verdi), but instead full of a lingering regret and sorrow.  I think he used the word culpa — as in “sorry” — to describe how we should be singing from the very opening notes.  [Edit: it was, in fact, cupo — meaning dark, somber.] He modified vowels to achieve a certain darkness, often chiding us for very open /i/ and /e/ sounds which came across as too happy or too childlike.  He migrated the triumphant sounding Sanctus movement away from its celebratory nature into one of respect.  He asked for sharp differences in legato and staccato notes to get combinations of contrasting textures.  At one point he reined in the sopranos because their excellently sung high notes were piercing through the rest of the chorus–I didn’t truly notice it until he fixed it.  He was very clear and insightful in his tempi choices.  He would make the text mean something, asking for the repeated request dona (“give [them]”) to be more prayerful and pleading, for instance.  And he did a few really interesting modifications to how we sang as an ensemble to get some magical effects, which I’ll detail in my next post for people familiar with the piece.

We had heard that Gatti had a reputation for demanding precision.  While we saw some of that last night, it wasn’t so much a demand but a promise.  Each one of the Verdi performances I’ve been involved in with other choruses has had a distinct flavor.  I’m very much looking forward to this one!