Dynamic, muscular and sonorous – Orpheus and Wellington Youth choirs tackle Verdi’s Requiem with Orchestra Wellington to stupendous effect

VERDI – Requiem Mass

Antoinette O’Halloran (soprano)
Deborah Humble (mezzo-soprano)
Diego Torre (tenor)
James Clayton (baritone)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Wellington Youth Choir

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre. Wellington

Saturday, September 8th, 2018

Choir(s) and Orchestra alike would have been more than gratified at the audience turnout for this concert – the ensuing atmosphere reminded me of the same combination’s brilliantly successful presentation of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” of a couple of years ago. Naturally, the performance ethos in this instance was somewhat more sombre, as befitted the subject matter, but the musicians’ commitment to the task of realising the sounds was in most places just as compelling.

I must admit to initial surprise at having a lineup of soloists predominantly from offshore, with the exception of adopted Wellingtonian James Clayton – surely we could have had at least one New Zealand-born singer in the ranks? I don’t for a moment condone the idea of any kind of local “quota” in these matters, as individual merit should always be a consideration – but it often seems to me that the attitude of organisations is “imported singers are better” – or maybe even “imported singers draw the crowds” – and in my view, it’s not necessarily the case.

Yes, I admit I am, perhaps unfairly, singling out one concert, here, as Orchestra Wellington is, in fact,  usually an exemplar in this regard, as witness the recent concerts involving soloists such as pianists Michael Houstoun and Jian Liu, violinists Amalia Hall and Wilma Smith, and singer Roger Wilson.  I simply, and not unreasonably, want to make a particular point, with this occasion being, on the face of things, fair game! I had no real qualms about any of the singing performances, but still feel that it would be good for august local musical organisations to consistently demonstrate robust support for local artists. Perhaps there was a circumstance that might have forced orchestra or choir to use mainly offshore soloists in this case, but I wasn’t made aware of it.

Away from such considerations, and focusing on the performance, I thought the stand-out vocal achievements of the evening were provided firstly by the choir itself, here made up of the combined Orpheus and Wellington Youth Choirs, and secondly the mezzo, Deborah Humble. The other soloists all, I thought, gradually “came into their own” as the performance went on, whereas for me, Humble “hit the ground running” with her first extended solo, “Liber scriptus proferetur”, giving her tones  apocalyptic foreboding, and “pinging” her notes with impressive accuracy. Then, in the following “Quid sum miser” her more cantabile qualities beautifully augmented the voices of both tenor and soprano. Her ability to blend with others was as much a delight as her solo singing, as with the soprano, Antoinette O’Halloran, in a sublime “Agnus Dei”, and then with tenor and baritone in a beseechful “Lux aeterna”, delivering a radiant final “lux aeterna, luceat eis Domine” over the tenor and baritone counterpointings at the end.

As a team the quartet of soloists worked well together, none obtruding in ensemble passages, but maintaining their individual lines, almost to a fault at times where I occasionally wanted a bit more “temperament” to match something of the choir’s fervour. I’m normally a great fan of baritone James Clayton’s, but here I thought his singing in places strangely inward-sounding, as if pondering his own mortality ahead of beseeching his Maker for mercy on behalf of all humankind. An example was his solemnly-intoned “Requiem aeternam” during the “Lux aeterna”, where I was expecting more apocalyptic-like pronouncements. True, his vocal manner was perfect for “Mors stupebit”, deep and solemn, but then seemed to lack sufficient “bite” at “Confutatis maledictis”, which really surprised me, as I’ve heard him “let fly” in the past with magisterial results.

I warmed to tenor Diego Torre as the evening went on, finding his voice a touch constricted-sounding at the outset, but with his tones better-focused and more open by the time he reached his important solo “Ingemisco tanquam reus”, with those achingly beautiful winds echoing and augmenting the vocal line. After the Lacrimosa’s great climax, he contributed sensitively to the ensemble in “Pie Jesu Domine”, and in the Offertorium, sang his “Hostias” with touching inner feeling, despite the accompanying horns being a shade too prominent to my ears (the only wayward balance I noticed in the entire performance…….).

Antoinette O’Halloran’s “big” sequence was, of course the “Libera me” which I thought she addressed with just the right degree of awe and urgency (“Tremens factus sum ego  et timeo”) and lyrical sweetness (“Requiem aeternam”). Earlier she had beautifully capped off the trio “Quid sum miser” with a lovely ascent at the concluding “cum vix justus sit securus”, but seemed to me not entirely comfortable with her intonation at a comparable place place in the “Recordare”. This apart, she contributed to a generally unified ensemble of soloists, at all times ably supported by conductor and players.

Throughout, the sheer presence of the massed voices, whether singing softly or powerfully, and across the whole dynamic spectrum, made for a gripping and visceral experience. Right from the beginning, the contrast between the opening murmurings of the words “Requiem aeternam”, and the sudden, galvanising effect of the basses’ entry at “Te decet hymnus” captured the writing’s unashamed volatility and theatricality, equally drawing us in as listeners to both the hushed and the open-throated declamations, and holding us in thrall throughout.

The deservedly celebrated “Dies Irae” sections had all the weight and “bite” from the voices that the words needed, with the soft singing (such as at “Quantus tremor est futurus”) putting across an awestruck quality which most appropriately ushered in the crushing onslaught of the “Tuba mirum”. At the section’s “other end” came the cortege-like trajectories of the Lacrymosa, building in weight and intensity to enormous proportions, superbly sung by the choir and pliably controlled by conductor Marc Taddei, as were both the vocal and the instrumental “Amens” at the end, beautifully summonsed from the silences before being allowed their full exhalation of breath.

What a contrast with the urgently launched, and excitably declaimed “Sanctus” – here dancing with delight, there shouting with fierce exultation, the singing by turns full-throated and delicate, concluding with a joyful “Hosanna in excelsis!”, the ascending syncopated brass accents as startling to the ears as ever!  Again, there was yet another complete change of expressive mode with the “Agnus Dei” (a different kind of celestial outpouring!) the two women superb, and the choir floating its myriad voices like stars in the Milky Way.

As for the “Libera me” (virtually a work in itself, of course), the choir played its part to perfection – awe-struck at its first entry, immediately following the soprano’s impassioned opening, then hurling itself once again into the maelstrom of “Dies Irae”, the basses wonderfully sepulchral in their after- mutterings of “Dies Irae, dies illa”, then joining with the rest of the voices in support of the soprano’s plea for mercy for departed souls. That done, the voices again took up their cudgels and hove to with a will into the fugue, their hushed tones as spine-tingling as their shouts of terror. The tremendous climax at “die illa tremenda” over, the voices whispered the final “Libera me’s” with an indescribably moving amalgam of fear, exhaustion, hope and faith at the work’s end – a stunning achievement!

As was that of the orchestral players in support of all described above, under the sure-footed direction of conductor Marc Taddei. The instrumental detailing, especially from the winds in their various accompaniments of the singers, was characterful and ear-catching at all times, the string-playing was by turns ethereal and sonorous, and the brass and percussion simply awesome in effect, the placement of the “Tuba Mirum” trumpets at various places in the auditorium opening up the vistas and filling our sensibilities with proper wonderment. I’ve heard more consciously doom-laden performances, with more apocalyptic “grunt” in places from singers and instrumentalists alike, but this was a dynamic, muscular rendition of a work which enabled its greatness to shine forth in splendid fashion.



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