This is delayed as we’ve been off doing other things (see above), but fresh in my mind. A live performance of the Berlioz Requiem is a rare opportunity, and deserves a suitable requiem of its own.
I agree with Steve Smith’s assessment that just bringing the Requiem to the modern concert hall is dazzling enough on its own. And Spano did elicit “dusky melancholy” from the strings in the opening, and was sensitive to the surprising introspection of the work. In some ways music on this grand a scale would be impressive with even amateur forces, and just getting the right note at the right time accomplishes the bulk of the composer’s goals.
Our weeklong work to blend our sound and unify our pulse paid off. And thanks to the emphasis on rehearsing at a soft dynamic level, it was the first large chorus I’ve sung in where I didn’t feel vocally fatigued by the first day.
Shaw technique seems to focus more on sound and pulse than dynamics and the words. As is common in Romantic music, the phrases themselves are so clearly shaped that the dynamics are rarely surprises, but Berlioz indicates accents in some unexpected places, and many passages had highly specific dynamic markings. It could be that we were just so dang good (as the choral director Norman Mackenzie exclaimed numerous times), but I’m so used to lengthy discussions about dynamics. Maybe it’s my Baroque proclivities, where dynamics do not exist unless performers make some decisions.
As for attention to text, Spano took a moment to quiet the gentlemen when they sang mors stupebit, which he pointed out recalls the guttural solo bass setting from the Verdi Requiem. Otherwise, I was a little surprised that after a week of singing one-and-a-two-and-a, we scarcely discussed diction or the meaning of the text. It was in the sprawling Lacrymosa, one of the longest movements, where I felt even just a couple of reminders in rehearsal about dynamics and the meaning of the text would have brought more spice to the mix.
But for all my nitpicking, it was truly a grand spectacle, and a clean, energizing performance. And with an audience full of moms and dads and choral nuts, the excitement and plain old love in the air was enough to tickle even the shyest performer. And for any of its flaws, Robert Shaw’s choral innovations do make this music the powerful stuff that it is. Otherwise, choristers would still sing like soloists, and grand choral music would sound like a walk through a jungle of aggressive and out of sync song birds. Compare the old-school of choral singing on this 1959 live recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with Shaw’s 1984 studio version.