It’s been an ambitious year for Scott Allen Jarrett and the Back Bay Chorale. Starting off in the winter with the Bach Christmas Oratorio and continuing with the Rachmaninoff Vespers, the ensemble concluded its 2010-2011 season with perhaps the greatest of this season’s undertakings. On Saturday, May 14, in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, the Chorale performed Giuseppe Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem
Given Verdi’s reputation as an opera composer, it’s hard not to crane to hear opera in the work. The piece certainly has these moments — glorious sections could have been lifted directly from Aida, maybe, or Otello. But there’s also a sensitivity to the work that is very specific to the requiem genre — an internalized personality that somehow opera doesn’t achieve.
Back Bay Chorale’s performance flourished in these many contrasts of the Requiem. Certainly, the performance was technically polished; we are fortunate to have musicians who hear and understand music the way Jarrett does, who not only compels the work forward but doesn’t sacrifice the original intent. This can’t have been easy for the choir: Jarrett’s leadership demanded not only sudden shifts in dynamics and tempo, but also sharp (and dramatic) changes in character — a task approached and executed by the largely amateur ensemble with a notably polished ease. But more to the choir’s credit was a deep communication of many of the work’s subtler points. It’s easy to shout the famous Dies Irae refrain, and fun too. But other moments of the work are intellectually and technically harder, less gratifying. In particular, I was amazed by the attention to detail particularly in the counterpoint of the Requiem aeternam and Libera me movements that highlight Verdi’s ability as an academic composer over those of a dramatist.
This is not to say that opera lovers did not get their fill on Saturday’s performance: bel canto arias abound in the solo and small ensemble movements of the work. Soloists were soprano Hope Briggs, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel, tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, and baritone David Kravitz. Although some small ensemble sections tended towards harmonic limbo, the collaboration of these particular voices provided a vast palette of colors. These contrasts were most notable in the Hostias section of the Offertorio: Manucharyan’s light, almost falsetto approach to the section only highlighted and supported Kravitz’s markedly different (yet no less gratifying) round, warm bass. The Sanctus movement seemed to illustrate this contrast in the female voice — singing in octaves practically the entire movement it was hard not to revel in the cognitive (note: not harmonic) dissonance of Briggs’s soaring soprano with Heltzel’s grounded and rich mezzo-soprano, almost contralto, sound.
None of this is to ignore the collaboration between soloist and choir that lies so centrally in Verdi’s work, particularly in the closing Libera Me. Briggs, eschewing performance practice, defiantly stormed into the final movement of the work without score. Her dramatic read was infectious not only to watch but was reflected in the choir’s enthusiasm, joining the charge into Verdi’s bold invective. Amazingly, despite the histrionics of the movement, the rich drama was tempered with an ear to balance (not once was Briggs overwhelmed by either choir or orchestra) and musicality, culminating in a deeply satisfying prayer.
It is no surprise that Saturday’s performance was greeted with an immediate standing ovation —one that (at least from a personal perspective) reflected an appreciation and admiration of all the performers. Given the quality of Saturday’s performance, it seems a mis-characterization to call the Back Bay Chorale an amateur ensemble, yet to ignore this fact detracts from its considerable accomplishment. Regardless of its status, the high caliber of musicianship evident in Saturday’s performance speaks to the impressive ambition and devotion to music fostered by the institution.
Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.