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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 29 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 48
SSO honors Speight Jenkins with glorious Requiem
Arts & Entertainment
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SSO honors Speight Jenkins with glorious Requiem

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

VERDI: MESSA DA REQUIEM
SEATTLE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
BENAROYA HALL
November 23


An enthusiastic crowd filled Benaroya Hall last weekend for three performances of Giuseppe Verdi's magnificent Requiem. The performance I attended was very fine indeed, and one of the best things about it was the way it came to be.

During his first year as music director of Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Ludovic Morlot made Speight Jenkins an offer he couldn't refuse: a concert featuring a work of his choice, with vocal soloists of his choice, to honor him during his final season as general director of Seattle Opera. Jenkins selected the Requiem and four promising young singers (soprano Joyce El-Khoury, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor René Barbera, and bass Jordan Bisch), three of whom have since performed in Seattle Opera productions.

The choice of young, relatively inexperienced soloists rather than established opera stars was no surprise to anyone familiar with Jenkins, widely known for discovering singers of great potential. His ability to spot and engage talented singers early in their careers has been a cornerstone of his building the reputation of Seattle Opera, for the singers express their gratitude by returning season after season to the company that gave them their start.

Morlot's gesture of respect toward Jenkins also illustrates the strength of cooperation between their arts organizations and the collegial spirit of both men. If you are familiar with the classical music scene in other cities, you know that an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual support is not to be taken for granted.

UNIQUELY CHALLENGING
The glorious performance I witnessed last week was one result of this collaborative spirit. The Verdi Requiem is a huge work of extreme contrasts. It demands exceptional vocal, dynamic, and emotional range. All its elements must be perfectly balanced, and yet it must always sound as though it's about to spin out of control. It requires a great conductor, orchestra, and chorus, and four great soloists with bright Italianate voices. The SSO performance had all of the above.

The first movement of the piece begins with the quietest, most serene music imaginable (played by the cello section, led by Efe Baltacigil), and the second, 'Dies Irae' ('Day of Wrath') contains the loudest and most terrifying. The blasts of brass and piccolo (Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby), combined with the bass drum (Michael Clark) and timpani (Michael Crusoe), the full force of the chorus, and the impossibly fast playing of the violins (led by associate concertmaster Emma McGrath), shook the very bones of the listeners. The trumpet fanfares of the Tuba mirum section, joined by the trombones, French horns, and tuba, effectively conveyed majesty and authority.

The soloists performed admirably, with sumptuous, flexible vocal lines. They never overpowered each other, and their voices blended perfectly during the ensembles. El-Khoury and Mumford's duets were simply gorgeous. Barbera's solo work was superb, and El-Khoury's 'Libera Me' was unforgettably moving. The challenging a cappella passages (for both the soloists and the chorus) were particularly beautiful.

The always excellent Seattle Symphony Chorale (trained by Joseph Crnko) has never sounded better. During the long, well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the concert, the chorus and Crnko received the loudest cheers.

The end of Verdi's Requiem is quiet and thoughtful. Morlot held his baton in the air for a moment of silence before lowering it and releasing the thundering applause of the audience. He looked utterly worn out, and I couldn't blame him a bit.

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