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VSO's thoughtful, reverential 'Requiem'

March 28, 2017

The Virginia Symphony's programming of Verdi's monumental "Requiem" was a much anticipated event. Certainly one of the most often played such works, the "Requiem" is a blend of opera and things liturgical.

A musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass, the "Requiem" is the operatic Verdi in action crafting highly dramatic musical moments that thrill and chill. From the hushed choral tones of the opening "Requiem" to the terror-inducing "Dies Irae ('Day of Wrath')," with its thunderous percussion and antiphonal trumpets sounding from the upper tier of the Ferguson Center Friday, and the exquisite "Offertorio" in which sublime cello lines were reflected by the vocal soloists, to the fugal complexities of the "Sanctus," this was a mighty powerful performance.

The "Requiem" requires the utmost effort of all involved, from the orchestra to the soloists to the chorus to achieve full impact. Expectedly, the effort of all, so carefully shaped by JoAnn Falletta, gave us a "Requiem" that was more than powerful; it was thoughtful, reflective and reverential.

The work's passion, drama, and purpose were fully in evidence, so much so that it seemed not possible the nearly 90 minute-without-intermission experience was over. Of course, there were those, such as patron on one side of me, for whom 90 minutes seemed too long to go without pulling out a cell phone multiple times and texting. To the opposite extreme and on the opposite side, a patron, who apparently had conducted the "Requiem," proceeded to do so throughout this performance.

Distractions aside, Falletta and company delivered a compelling and, for me, riveting performance. Most certainly, the orchestra was fully responsive to Falletta's every musical nuance and turned out its usual first class performance, bringing to the effort the full range of emotional playing required in the score.

Verdi's ability to capture the essence of the voice was brilliantly relayed in exceptionally strong performances throughout the lengthy work. The 100-some member Chorus, finely prepared by chorusmaster Robert Shoup, was at its best. This is a superb group that doesn't just sing; it embraces the text and adds emotional layers to its effort, a fact very much in evidence here.

The main musical messages of the "Requiem" fell to four guest soloists. Each brought to the effort the required operatic qualities that enhanced the work's impact. Individually and in ensemble, the blend among the four was perfect and sensitive to the text.

Charles Reid displayed a clarion and clear tenor that soared throughout his range, his extended "Ingemisco," in which he prays to God for mercy and forgiveness, truly impressive. Kevin Deas offered a rewardingly dark and rich bass-baritone that added poignancy to his solo moments. Susan Platts, likewise, provided a rich, open and fully formed mezzo-soprano that was dramatically and artistically superb throughout.

For as superb as were the above in delivery and presence, it was soprano Jennifer Check who seemed most totally involved in the text and delivery. Her pure, chilling and thrilling sound easily met Verdi's challenges, her power easily completive against the orchestra in full throttled passages. The soprano closes the "Requiem" with a lengthy "Libera Me." Here, Check was spellbinding as she sang of deliverance from death, the day of judgment, and eternal rest. Mid-way through, she closed her score and, drawing from emotional depths, seemed to internalize the text and music in vocally sculpting an interpretation that was inspired and stunning, as was this entire "Requiem."

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."