Ben Zander, a musician of famously deep passions, first conducted the Verdi Requiem with the Boston Philharmonic and Chorus Pro Musica in 1981. It was his first appearance in Symphony Hall, and the first choral music he conducted.
(Nine months pregnant in the summer of 1981, I heard the BSO perform this piece at Tanglewood. I have been in love with it ever since. My son, who accompanied me on Sunday, apparently followed suit, buying and listening over the years to some 18 recordings).
But even for Verdi Requiem junkies, something magical happened when Ben Zander conducted a spectacularly moving performance on Sunday, replete with an excellent chorus prepared by Jamie Kirsch, four veteran Verdi singers who knew exactly what to do, and players who gave their leader everything he could have ever wanted. Zander poured his passion into every bar of this transformative experience, which triumphed from beginning to end.
In Zander’s pre-concert lecture, he stressed the importance of needing singers with “great personalities and very sensitive voices, people who intertwine and can match each other. You can’t have a good Verdi Requiem unless you have a great quartet.” Zander’s quartet—soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti, tenor Issachah Savage (a late replacement for Stephen Costello, who canceled because of the flu), and bass-baritone Alfred Walker—answered any conductor’s prayers. Zander was visibly disappointed about Costello’s absence, but Issachah Savage knew the Requiem, had the perfect voice, and flew into Boston for a rehearsal Saturday. Singing gloriously, he gave renewed meaning to Heldentenor. He added beauty and personality to everything he sang. A hero, indeed.
The Requiem opened very quietly, as the chorus murmurs about wanting peace for the dead, while clearly filled with their own death-anxieties. The whirling tumult of Dies Irae terrified, with the chorus powering at full volume and an insistent, unsettling bass drum (Hans Morrison) striking the off-beats. If the dead were to be awakened, this is the music that would make it happen. The chorus entered powerfully, then in whispers sang of the Day of Judgment that will dissolve the world in ashes. Four trumpets played from either side of the second balcony (a major goosebumps moment) joined by all of the excellent brass and the chorus at full volume. (At this point, your reviewer broke into tears). The three shocking Dies Iraes interrupting the Mass always unsettle us, since the operatic Verdi knows precisely how to manipulate our emotions. Zander and his forces nailed these powerful moments. (Apparently there were quite a few more rehearsals than usual, and it certainly paid off).
Zander is known for working magic, but much of it must have been conjured at the last minute, since Soprano Angela Meade was only original vocal quartet member. She stunned in the requiem’s final movement, Libera me, and when in Agnus Dei, her long duet with mezzo Marianne Cornetti was sublime. These two seemed, quite simply, meant to sing together. (What a bio Meade has! Besides winning some major awards- Met Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award and Richard Tucker Award), she “has triumphed in an astounding number of vocal competitions: 57 in all, and was the first singer to take first prize in both the opera and operetta categories of Vienna’s prestigious Belvedere Competition”).
Cornetti also sounded stunning throughout, as if Verdi had composed for her. Her magnificent tones blended beautifully with the other three soloists. When she soloed, time stopped. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker projected “Confutatis maledictis” with power and conviction, and imparted beauty to many pleas within the quartets.
As the program notes by David St. George explain, “The dominant feature that distinguishes this requiem from all other works in the genre that preceded it is that it is essentially about the mourners who have assembled to celebrate it. It does not, at any point, preach the word of the Lord, but rather allows us to witness human reactions to it.” The humans who packed Symphony Hall were completely mesmerized. No one coughed or fidgeted; they stayed transfixed on the music for its entirety (one tiny break). The Boston Philharmonic has never sounded better. It ended in prolonged cheers, but I walked out dumbstruck, emotionally depleted after the majesty and volcanic power of this breathtaking achievement.