Verdi’s Requiem: Nashville Symphony

Nashville Symphony’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece in their palace of music “The Schermerhorn Symphony Center” checks all of the boxes one would expect from a world class symphonic experience. A world class venue, an excellent orchestra and conductor, quality soloists, a very good chorus and dead center in the heart of Music City USA on a balmy early summer evening.

Nashville is Music City USA by it’s own definition, based on the long standing history of country and bluegrass music pouring out of this Mecca for aspiring musicians. Over the span of my lifetime it has grown from a sleepy town in the mid-south to a pulsating center of activity and rapid growth. It commands one of the most interesting city skylines I know of and when you approach it from the north, which I always do, it rises from the horizon like the Emerald City with all of it’s glass facades and shiny new buildings. Music makes Nashville’s downtown a lot different than many cities because the music creates an energy in the evenings like few places you will ever visit.

As you walk over the footbridge from the other side of the Cumberland River you get a spectacular view of the entire layout and the intensity of the city’s atmosphere really pulsates from it’s middle. A lot of energy in that town, maybe more than many cities of any size that isn’t a world city.

I am going to attempt an actual review of this concert which is something I have never really done before. Suffice it to say that I have never before been in the audience of any Verdi Requiem because I was always performing it, either as a chorus member or a soloist.

The Requiem was conducted by The Nashville Symphony’s Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, and performed with the Nashville Symphony Chorus,  Dr. Tucker Biddlecombe, Director, and the soloists Erika Sunnegårdh, soprano, Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano, Alexey Dolgov, tenor, Eric Owens, bass. I attended the performance on Friday, June 1, 2018 and sat in the orchestra level, in the middle of the hall.

My review of the performance will take into account my opinion that sitting in the orchestra section is usually not the best place acoustically for any performance. I prefer to be in the upper balcony where the sound actually is at it’s best.

In general, there is only praise to be heaped upon the performances given and as a whole it was a very good evening of music. Everything was in the right place, at the right time and done at a very high level. There is a lot to be said for that because a piece of this complexity and difficulty offers many opportunities for mishaps.

Considering all of the above, I went in with high expectations for a great performance because everything I have seen with this symphony and it’s glorious hall have given me no cause to expect anything less.

However, no matter where you go in the world, everyone is “cooking with water”, to coin an old German saying. Meaning, even at the highest level, classical music will always be what it is, honest. It is real people playing really difficult music, without cables, mixing hardware and all of the technological “schnickschnack” that electronic performances can wield.

If you take nothing else with you from a performance of the Verdi Requiem you will always remember the “Dies Irae” so this is the logical place to start in discussing any performance of this monumental work.

There is a sensitive balance in classical music between vulgar and expressive playing. In the case of the Dies Irae, one would have to say that vulgar should be approached. The day of wrath is not a pretty thing and this epic music should be played all of the way on the edge. This didn’t occur in this performance. The bass drum was played too decently, the brass was playing into their music stands and the articulation of the chorus was too legato and didn’t create the kind of hammer effects this portion of the mass should elicit. The famous trumpet calls were accurate but the following chorus of brass was all played into the stands and the effect was totally lost on this listener. The reason the trumpet calls work, is because they are playing in your face, you see the bells of the instruments and the sound hits you directly. The failure to have this in the brass section was quite disappointing to be honest.

The strings all played very well and the woodwinds were all spot on, but because of my aural positioning in the hall, much of that was a bit hard to hear, but this isn’t a knock on this performance, it is just the way it is in practically every hall I have ever been in.

I guess I should interject here that the numbers used in this performance probably are not the ideal for this massive piece. Nashville’s orchestra is fully staffed, but it could use more numbers in such pieces.

The chorus positioning in the hall is absolutely idea and I was impressed by the mixed seating of the choristers and not the typical SATB arrangement employed by most such choruses. I am still uncertain if this offers the best solution for such a work where fugal writing would be enhanced by the sections being separate. No doubt it works well for the homophonic passages.

Here too the size of the chorus fills the loft, but for the Requiem it seems that more would be better. When the forces are fewer than desirable they must perform with much more rhythmic clarity, even in the quiet passages, to create a detailed and textually understandable sound. Verdi is a very rhythmic composer and the force of his compositions are mostly achieved when the block power chords are played in that way. Sometimes the soft passages were inaudible and lacked a textual impact. If you are going to make whisper sounds, they must be rhythmic and supported by a tone which carries, and not just air. It isn’t as if these points were addressed in their performance, but it just wasn’t quite as good as it could have been.

Now comes the challenging part of any review; the soloists. Having been one makes me reluctant to even comment on their performances, but I will do my best.

Erika Sunnegårdh, soprano, met all of the requirements of this demanding part. She has a very present and beautiful voice which easily carries throughout the hall. Upon reading her biography the first thing I noticed were the roles she has been singing, dominated by the German dramatic fach. She has also done Turandot which is also a dramatic part for soprano. So, upon reading her repertoire I went in already having a good idea about how she would sound, and my forgone conclusions were substantiated by her performance. No doubt she is an expressive and beautiful singer with impressive sounds and a lyric capability. However, for the Verdi Requiem, I expect a different kind of soprano. So, while I have nothing but a great admiration for her performance I would rather hear her in Salome, Senta and Tosca than in this piece. No doubt her petite size and humble presence is a surprise to someone expecting sounds to fulfill these roles and their highly dramatic characters. The quality needed for the Requiem is more of an Italian lyric bel canto style of singing you want to hear from Aida, Leonora, Violetta or a Donna Anna. So, that is more on the casting than the artist.

Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano, was a contrast to Ms. Sunnegårdh in just about every way. She commands an impressive appearance onstage where her a bit over the top blond locks dominated the scene. I was a bit taken back by her overly covered vocalization of the piece. While possessing a truly dramatic voice and beautiful tone with a great technique for all of the demands of such a piece, it seems it would aide her effectiveness if she let the sound out a bit more. Her diction was unrecognizable with the typical trap that opera singers get into with singing as if they have marbles in their mouths. She has this magnificent open and friendly presence and then puts a mute on it all when she sings. I would love to hear her when she would not do that, I think it would be absolutely outstanding. This overt covering to create an “impressive darkness of tone” completely hides the brilliance and openness her voice could otherwise have and needs to be able to express the texts clearly and expressively.

Alexey Dolgov, tenor, was a well balanced and accurate singer. His vocalization of the piece was the most ideal of the quartet. Clearly he is in total command of his voice and the piece and doesn’t do anything to disturb the clarity of his performance. As a tenor, I appreciate his calm demeanor and efficiency in singing this ensemble piece. He has a beautiful evenness of sound throughout the range and is equally balanced between brightness of sound and a well done cover in his top. It lacks a variety of colors, a clarion type of sound and presence you would want ideally in this piece but he stayed true to his voice and presented it with ease, without any strangeness in the voice.

Eric Owens, bass possesses a rich timbre and sang with a nice variety of colors and effects to outline the drama of his role. He commanded all ranges effectively and was a compelling presence on stage. His voice becomes completely unfurled when he sings forte and it is a wonderful thing to hear. But, everything else he tends to keep to himself. In a hall like Schermerhorn there is no danger for any soloist to overpower it so as a singer you always have to sing big, even if you don’t sing loud. Like I said, he sang very expressively with a lot of color, but he kept much of this to himself, and the audience wants more of his voice than he was giving, not in terms of volume but in openness of sound in anything less than fortissimo.

Overall, the performance lacked the pop that it needs. There were moments of goose bump producing effects and some really outstanding sounds from the entire ensemble. The homophonic passages where the choral sound and orchestral sound were unified were some of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It won’t get any better than that. But, without the solidity of the bone crushing effects this piece can and should deliver, like most Verdi operas possess, it falls a bit short. It is almost as if they were careful not to be too loud or shocking.

Maestro Guerrero conducted, as is his custom, without music. He is an excellent conductor and in full command of his players and the music. Sometimes I thought he conducted too small for a large chorus in the quieter moments which I thought caused a lack of precision and clarity in those passages. His conducting is exact, clear and attentive to his charges and his ability to keep the Trumpet calls and the whole section of the stage brass and ensuing dramatic passages was quite impressive as well as the later movements such as the Sanctus. He is also capable of creating moments during the piece which add to the effectiveness of the delivery. Holding the moment at the end of the piece and starting the piece in complete silence and stillness were both moving and appreciated. However, there could have been much more impact made if the music making was more detached to create blocks of sound instead of smoothing it over a bit too much. (Like I said in the beginning, my opinion my have been different had I sat where I usually sit in the upper balcony.)

The concert was very well attended and the audience was both very attentive and enthusiastic at the end. I obviously highly recommend going to the Nashville Symphony not only because they are going for the major league in orchestral music, but also because it is also an exciting and memorable experience.





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