Columbia Pro Cantare is up to the task of performing difficult Verdi Requiem

For first time, group tackles masterwork

Howard Live

November 04, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It took 22 years for Columbia Pro Cantare to perform its first Verdi Requiem.

And when conductor Frances Motyca Dawson and her 150 singers finally got around to that most operatic of sacred masterworks Saturday evening at the Jim Rouse Theatre, they made it worth the wait.

The Verdi Requiem is a tough nut to crack under the best of circumstances. It demands tremendous extremes of vocal sound, incessant attention to intonation and balance and technical mastery of some of the toughest choral passages ever composed.

It also demands extraordinary synchronicity among the conductor, choir orchestra and soloists. Pro Cantare turned Saturday's performance into a bit of an adventure when the scheduled mezzosoprano became ill and a substitute had to take the stage without benefit of rehearsal.

Thankfully, the replacement mezzo was Marietta Simpson, one of America's finest oratorio singers, who has performed the complete choral canon with some of the finest orchestras in the world.

Cared for intently by Motyca Dawson, Simpson's regal presence lent much beauty and spiritual intensity to Pro Cantare's efforts. Verdi lavished some of his most inspired vocal writing on the mezzo and, one after another, those meltingly beautiful passages were realized with exemplary artistry. It's hard to imagine the "Recordare," "Lux aeterna" and Simpson's "Agnus Dei" duet with soprano April-Joy Gutierrez being sung more angelically.

Gutierrez also should be singled out for kudos. Though clearly under the weather, she maintained her composure and floated out Verdi's taxing, stratospheric soprano lines with style and grace.

Verdi's writing for the solo tenor calls for virility and sensitivity, and Charles Reid provided ample doses of both.

Baritone Lester Lynch also has the measure of the work, though let's hope he doesn't run away again with the "Confutatis" tempo the next time he sings it.

The stars of the evening were Motyca Dawson and her singers. Their diction was superb, with no Bawlmer Latin at all; a rarity in these parts.

Intensely chromatic harmonies were handled with aplomb, and Verdi's nasty counterpoint in the "Sanctus" and "Libera me" rang out with power and joy.

If you don't know these singers, you should, for one of the elite choirs in Maryland is right here in your back yard.

I encourage the chorus to keep working with its talented and well-intentioned conductor to make each and every musical phrase speak eloquently. A superior bass section needn't swallow its words on a descending scale, as the fellows did at "amare valde" in the "Libera me." And the second batch of "Requiem aeternams" glowed with more hushed intensity than the first. Be transfixed by the music, singers, even before you start.

Also, Pro Cantare needs to have a word with its audience about keeping reasonably still for a performance. It is well and good to provide big, glossy programs complete with translations, but when the oversized booklets are constantly being bumped and whacked, the level of distraction quickly becomes maddening.

We also must have ushers on duty throughout the entire first half of a concert. A full 32 minutes into the work, a pair of narcissistic nitwits sauntered down the aisle, hoisted themselves over some unfortunate music lovers and sat down. Not four minutes after my homicidal urges had quelled, another pair of miscreants did the same thing.

Get with it, Columbia. "Fashionably late" is for cocktail parties, not for the liturgy for the dead.

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