Stefan Egerstrom, Joshua Blue, Lindsay Ammann, and Leah Hawkins
It was a rare opportunity to hear Dvorák's Requiem, a piece commissioned by the Birmingham Festival in England where it premiered in 1891, shortly after the master returned from his long stay in the United States. Our initial interest in the composer was aroused by living next door to his former home on 17th Street. A kindly neighbor invited us into the house and we were thrilled. The home was demolished and the property was taken over by the hospital down the street during the AIDS epidemic and was later converted into a homeless shelter. We always felt that was a low blow, not giving sufficient respect to a seminal figure in the "musicverse".
Perhaps that disrespect resonated with us last night when the four singers were positioned behind the orchestra where they could not be seen, at least not from our seat in the orchestra. They could be heard due to the strength and focus of their singing and when the orchestra was in a quiet place, but we would say that the desired balance was not achieved.
Maestro Leon Botstein had a huge chorus (The Bard Festival Chorus, directed by James Bagwell) and orchestra (American Symphony Orchestra) at his command and would have received praise had he not given the singers such short shrift. That being said, the work is rarely performed and we must be grateful that we had the opportunity to hear it.
It is our mission to write about singers so we will begin there. Two of the singers are well known to us. Soprano Leah Hawkins won our admiration a few years ago when she was a member of the Lindemann Young Artists Program. Her voice is full-bodied and expansive with overtones that fill the hall. Tenor Joshua Blue has been on our radar since his days at Juilliard and we never missed a chance to hear him at the student recitals and operas. To his credit, he never pushed his voice and managed somehow to float above the orchestra. It is a lovely sound and deserved to be heard.
Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann. is new to us and we long to hear her in a friendlier acoustic environment. The sound is rich, full, and satisfying. Stefan Egerstrom's sturdy bass resounded well. Our favorite movement, the "Hostias", was a quiet one and we had the best opportunity to hear the singers, beginning with Mr. Egerstrom, then Ms. Ammann , then Mr. Blue, and finally Ms. Hawkins. We also liked the harp played by Ruth Bennett and the way the voices overlapped as if in a fugue.
The work is a long one and therefore performed with intermission. It struck us as less nationalistic than the works with which we are more familiar. We know him best through his operas (actually, Russalka is the only one we know) and the song cycle Songs My Mother Taught Me, which we loved in German and loved even more the one time we heard it sung in Czech. His music definitely belongs to the Romantic Period.
This work is a somber one, as befits a Requiem, and very different from the other works we have heard. The opening "Requiem aeternum" began with a spare melody but a sudden eruption from the chorus let us know that we were in for a wild ride. There were frequent sharp bursts of fortissimi and a sobbing motif. The "Graduale" introduced a brief swirling motif of four notes-- a gruppetto. Voices bounced off each other and at a couple points our unconscious led us into Wagnerian territory which we are unable to pinpoint.
We particularly enjoyed the quietude of the gentle "Quid sum miser". We liked the flute solo in the "Recordare, Jesu pie". The "Lacrimosa" involved some insistent violins. The "Offertorium" had a lot of variety--a gentle opening that built and swelled and a lively rhythmic section. The "Sanctus" was written in 3/4 time. The "Pie Jesu" had a lovely chorale of wind instruments. The "Agnus Dei" that closed the work finally allowed us to hear the soprano.
We couldn't help wondering what the work might sound like if the orchestra were in the pit. Perhaps it is just my taste but we felt the singers and the text merited more importance.
© meche kroop