`Requiem' for Pro Cantare

Mozart: Complexity and melodic beauty distinguish this final work of the master.

October 24, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

During the recent commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, one masterwork of the choral music canon made history as the vehicle for mankind's first "Rolling Requiem."

That piece, performed sequentially across many of the world's time zones by musicians honoring those who sustained loss in the terrorist attacks, was the Requiem Mass composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as he himself was dying in the late autumn of 1791.

"It's a profound piece of music," says Frances Motyca Dawson, whose Columbia Pro Cantare Chorus will open its 26th season Saturday evening at Jim Rouse Theatre with Mozart's grand setting of the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead.

"While it's complicated, as all great music is, the melodic beauty of Mozart gives the Requiem a simplicity that reaches everyone directly."

Perhaps it was that universal melodic appeal that made Mozart's valedictory statement the work of choice for the "Rolling Requiem."

The story of the Requiem also is an abiding metaphor for the precariousness of life - surely an appropriate theme for any remembrance of murder on the grand scale.

After a bizarre commissioning by a Viennese nobleman who apparently hoped to pass the work off as his own one day, Mozart began the choral requiem in the summer of 1791.

He soon had to put it aside, however, to complete his final two operatic masterpieces, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute).

By the time he returned to the commission, he already was in the throes of the physical decline that would leave him dead of rheumatic fever in December 1791, just a month shy of his 36th birthday.

Aware that he was composing his own musical epitaph, Mozart was so overcome physically and emotionally that he had to dictate portions of the work to the friends and students gathered around him on his deathbed.

It was to one of those disciples - Franz Xaver Sussmayr - that Constanze Mozart, the composer's widow, turned for a final version of her husband's incomplete Requiem.

Sussmayr did craft one, but the period performance authenticists of our own time have had a field day touching up his handiwork.

Numerous alternate versions exist, and Motyca Dawson has opted for Franz Beyer's relatively unobtrusive edition that spruces up Sussmayr's clunkier moments while leaving most of his writing intact.

And that is as it should be. The churning double-fugue that opens and closes the work (and is indisputably all-Mozart, by the way) is one of the most extraordinary sequences of choral counterpoint ever composed.

And regardless of final authorship - teacher or student, Wolfgang Amadeus or Franz Xaver - the "Recordare," "Hostias," "Lacrimosa" and "Domine Jesu" are as affecting as anything in the choral canon.

Beethoven had it right: "If Mozart did not write the music," he said, "then the man who wrote it was a Mozart."

"What comes through in this music is a mastery of many styles," says Motyca Dawson.

"The baroque elements are there, as Mozart was so well versed in the style of Bach and Handel. The `Recordare' is right out of Italian opera. It's all there, synthesized and expressed in Mozart's own perfect way."

That ineffable sense of perfection extended to other idioms, of course, especially to the musical stage.

"I like an aria to fit a singer as perfectly as a well-tailored suit of clothes," Mozart once said.

With soprano April-Joy Gutierrez, mezzo Mary Ann McCormick, tenor Todd Geer and baritone DeAndre Simmons as soloists, Mozart's operatic genius will be honored with arias from The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo.

The Overture to Don Giovanni will round out Saturday's program with consummate Mozartean drama and style.

Columbia Pro Cantare performs Mozart's Requiem, plus a selection of operatic arias, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. A free preconcert lecture will be held in the theater from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are $23 in advance; $20 for senior citizens and students. A $2 surcharge will be applied to tickets purchased at the door. Group and season tickets are available. 410-465-5744 or 410-799-9321.

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