Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lessons learned

I was delighted at the opportunity to hear New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble's October 19 presentation of the Verdi Requiem. NYSAE is an orchestra of skilled amateurs celebrating its 25th season of performing. The ensemble's music director, Timothy Hutto, is a good musician and a friend. The group was joined by the Arcadian Chorale, the Richmond Choral Society, and the New York Festival Singers, with guest conductor Marina Alexander. The performance took place at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, near Lincoln Center.

Sara Murphy
Photo: Joshua South Photography
As usual, I will begin with the rave-worthy elements of this concert. And boy howdy, mezzo Sara Murphy is worthy of my most enthusiastic raves. Her Lux aeterna was lyrical and full of drama at the same time. Her Liber scriptus has set a new standard by which I shall judge all other performances of Liber scriptus. Her performance was sensitive musically and completely on the mark vocally, her sound always beautiful and free. Why is this lovely woman not singing everywhere? I would compare her to Amnerises and Adalgisas with world-class careers today, and she'd win.

Another praise-worthy element of this Verdi Requiem was tenor Enrique Pina. (I want so badly to put make it Piña, but it is indeed Pina.) I was impressed by his vocally secure and self-assured performance in this concert. (Here is a YouTube link to hear him singing Ingemisco from a concert in his native Dominican Republic in 2012.) Given the fact this is not his first Verdi Requiem, however, one does wonder why Mr. Pina was so closely invested in his score for every movement in which he was involved, including Ingemisco. But for the most part, however, his singing was quite good.

The bass soloist, Gustavo Ahualli, has been mentioned here before, in a post about another Verdi Requiem performance. I said then that although his singing is beautiful--and it truly is--the role simply requires more of a bass than a bass-baritone or baritone. I still stand by that statement.

Having commented on the best parts of the concert, I must now change course. Regular readers will know that I always tailor my evaluations to the professional level of the performing ensemble or individual. Regular readers will also know that this work is among the nearest and dearest to my heart. This is why it pains me deeply to say that this concert should not have taken place. At a high level I list the following reasons:

  • The orchestra and chorus simply were not ready. Under-rehearsed is the kindest way to describe the situation. I won't list examples of unfortunate incidents--Mr. Hutto and Ms. Alexander surely have their own lists.
  • The venue was a very poor choice. Acoustics were bathtubby, to say the least, leading to a very soupy sound and tremendous lack of clarity in different voice and instrumental parts. The layout of the church created a balance problem and a timing lag between chorus and orchestra that was unacceptable.
  • The soprano soloist was not up to the job, simply not at the same level as the other soloists. Remember, the Verdi Requiem is built around the soprano soloist. While she did have many beautiful moments--most notably singing piano in a comfortable range--there were times when the vocal demands seemed beyond her capabilities. Further, although I begrudge no one a music stand in place of holding the score--and I don't know the reasons she had a music stand--her unladen arms flailed about in quite a self-indulgent way, telegraphing not only the degree of difficulty of any upcoming passage, but also the mere fact she was about to make a vocal entrance. For all that histrionic energy, she didn't always seem very involved in the music she was singing, beyond its vocal difficulties.

October, 2013, marks the 200th anniversary of Mr. Verdi's birth. NYSAE's intention was to honor Verdi and his music on its own 25th anniversary. To do honor to Mr. Verdi on his 200th birthday, perhaps it would have been better to revise the plans.