Saturday, April 14, 2012

Req'd 'em, nearly killed 'em

Dear old St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was the venue for the event about which I report, on Friday evening, April 13. No sojourn into the wilds of NJ, or even the outer boroughs, required. (Yes, I know I talk like a Manhattanite although I live in Yonkers. It's called artistic license.) The event was once again a performance of Mr. Verdi'a Requiem, a piece I never tire of. Of which I never tire. The presenting organization was The Choral Society, which normally performs at dear Grace Church.

I adore St. Thomas and its long tradition of beautiful choral music in the Anglican tradition. In fact, when I'm not being a sing-whore paid church singer elsewhere, I like to hit St. Thomas sometimes for a great show and some Saviour SnacksTM.  However, the acoustics of the nave are a bit odd. The nave is so long that I have found in the past I simply can not watch the music making, particularly the conductor's gestures, if I'm seated more than halfway back. The difference between what I hear and I see caused by the time it takes the sound to travel to my seat has actually made me queasy on occasion. While a perfect place for Byrd and dear Mr. Stanford or Mr. Howells, I'm afraid St. Thomas on this occasion did Mr. Verdi and The Choral Society no favors.

John Maclay, courtesy
I tell a lie. The choir, under the direction of Music Director John Maclay, coped with the bathtub acoustics well, and one could easily see the care and attention to detail that went into this performance. This choir had sufficient numbers to attack the work, and Mr. Maclay drew out of them a nuanced performance, full of fury for Dies Irae, but subtle and tender for the opening Requiem. In the scope of the entire evening, however, the Dies Irae returns about five gazillion times, so it's good to husband one's resources so that the impact is not lost. Even investing the same energy in each iteration might give the appearance of losing steam or of diminishing impact. This is one of the few flaws in the choir's performance. The only other major flaw was in the two fugues. They're Hard with a capital H, so it's understandable that it might take two thirds of the Sanctus fugue for the choir to finally be fully with the conductor. The Libera me fugue (did you know it'a actually an inversion of the Sanctus fugue?) was better, but also had its slippery moments.

Photo credit: unknown
I fear I must report that the quartet of soloists did not fare so well. All of them are accomplished singers with lots of experience and impressive resumes. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, mezzo Vanessa Cariddi, tenor Nathan Carlisle (no link but search for his YouTube videos), and baritone Gustavo Ahualli are all fine singers, as evidenced by recordings easily found online. I fear the acoustics of their odd placement in the overcrowded chancel at St. Thomas—in front of but very near the choir, behind the orchestra, and about a football field away from the conductor—contributed to the over-singing all four of them did. There were passages when all four sang with restraint and great beauty, so one could hear they are capable of truly wonderful singing.

As I say, all four soloists are fine singers, but one wonders why some of them were hired for the Verdi Requiem. Mr. Carlisle has a light, mellifluous sound, and he uses it beautifully, but his is not a voice for this role. In addition to simply having the wrong vocal color for the role, he often could not be heard at all, even when the quite rambunctious orchestra was silent or playing softly. Mr. Ahualli also was not the right man for the job. Verdi's masterwork requires a bass or bass-baritone, but Mr. Ahualli is a baritone--a very fine one, but simply not endowed with the vocal quality and heft in his low voice to do the role justice, and he, too, was difficult to hear at times, although when one did hear him, more often than not one was pleased.

Photo credit: unknown

I'm happy to say it was easy to hear Ms. Cariddi nearly all the time, which is not always the case with the mezzo in any quartet.  The pushing that all four soloists seemed forced to do did less harm to her her sound than to some others, and her rich middle and lower registers were in ample supply, although her top was a little less shiny than usual. By contrast, I'm very unhappy to report that Ms. Williams fared the worst in the vocal battle. In the YouTube videos one finds (click the link above to find her site, wherein one can find a link to a lovely excerpt from a recent Aida), her voice is full and rich, with a healthy dose of that steeliness appropriate to spinto voices. I am forced to report that in this concert one heard too much steeliness and not enough richness. There were passages that were quite lovely, including the Requiem aeternam section of the Libera me, with its floated high B‑flat. Overall, however, I had trouble listening to Ms. Williams, and it pains me very much to say so.

Mr. Maclay had a capable reign on the orchestra, and one never found their sound underpowered. Perhaps a drag racing strip or a missile testing site might challenge this orchestra for decibels, but the choir and venue were cake to this canny and quite capable orchestra.

This was not a concert I regret hearing.  I simply regret that so much potential beauty was forced aside because of crowding and acoustics.

UPDATE:  I have learned that, in addition to the acoustics and crowding, the solo quartet sang the entire work twice through with the orchestra the day before the concert.  I hope that The Choral Society will rethink this sort of rehearsal schedule in the future.

Actually, it's called shut up and click the advertising links so I can afford to keep this blog going!

No comments: