Friday evening in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, an exciting, emotive, decipherable, musical, interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, was performed, and it may well have been the best that anyone has heard. The fine acoustics of Helzberg was part of that performance, reducing (not eliminating) the amount of physical effort for orchestra and chorus to fill the room with enormous, luscious sound.
Clarity is the key word; instruments and singers were clear. A millisecond of silence was inserted between the s of dies and the ih of irae and the ih of illa. A minor thing, not at all. The technique provides a new puff of air to propel the vowel sound, allowing vowel and volume to be instantly sounded. Rather than having to put power into the transition of sirae or silla (which often becomes zirae and zilla) there is a clean start of the vowel sound. The power of the voices is instantly and simultaneously released without pressing the voices, without the questionable intonation that results from overworking the voices. The standard industry sound of Dies irae is raucous, uncontrolled, let it all hang out, yelling.
The Kansas City Symphony chose to have the bass drummer with a mallet in each hand to play two over-sized horizontal drums to, antiphonally with the full orchestra, announce the Dies irae with the four spine-straightening pummels that are immediately followed by the thunderous choir entrance.
There were two conductors at work, together. Music director, Michael Stern gives clear indication of the instant the sound is to start and stop, and how it is to sound. The members of the symphony come to rehearsals with the music ready to be professionally performed. Mr. Stern forms the individual sounds into a single, efficient, whole that is so much more than the separate, wonderful parts.
The fastidious treatment of each syllable and vowel sound, as detailed above, are from the coaching of Robert Shaw-trained, chorus director, Charles Bruffy. The most natural inclination in a Bruffy rehearsal is to raise one's hand and whine, "Can we just sing the music." Mr. Bruffy has won this battle with this group years ago; the ensemble understands that the Shavian choral technique causes a great choir to transition from ordinarily wonderful to uniquely wonderful, a choir that can be understood, word by word, and makes every choral nuance on purpose. This training must be at a level that it perseveres to a different maestro, who must also keep tabs on the orchestra. It is the practice of this organization for the orchestral conductor to attend two choral rehearsals, observing Mr. Bruffy, then taking the podium to recreate the same choral sound.
Verdi (1813-1901) was a composer of operas, great operas, still highly represented in the world-wide repertoire. His Requiem (1874) is sometimes referred to as his greatest opera. There were breath-taking operatic moments in this weekend's performance, particularly in solo ensembles. But, some of the most flamboyant arias were subjugated to a worshipful, awe-struck gratitude for the divine promise of eternal light.
Mezzo-soprano, Tamara Mumford, met the Verdian demands for range with a full, voiced low, a bright middle sound, and perfectly controlled flute-like highs. She interacted beautifully with the chorus in the Liber scriptus; her voice effortlessly carried over chorus and orchestra with simple beauty, and an unforced sound, matching the chorus and orchestral attitude.
Amber Wagner, soprano, sang with a consistent timbre and room-ownership each time she participated. If there were a time during the mass for the audience to break into applause, it was after her solo in the Liber me. The final note was so high, so room-filling, so demanding, but as delicate as a humming bird riding a rainbow, that the room was hushed with (worshipful?) intensity.
Dimitri Pittas, tenor, delivered his arias and ensembles with a combination of Baroque evangelist and a self-effacing Romantic tenor. The soaring lines lifted up as an offering. The demanding Ingemisco tenor aria within the Dies irae was a monument to selfless performance. He negotiated each line with glorious, un-pressed sound, that filled, rather than pounded, the hall. Bravo!
Rounding out the ensemble quartet was bass, Jordan Bisch. He moved in and out of ensembles and arias with grace, fitting the mood of soli deo gloria that permeated the entire evening. Most notable was the smooth, nearly vibrato-less extended notes; sure demonstration of well-developed breath control. His Confutatis maledictis was offered as a powerful prayer, rather than a sinister malevolency.
The full house respectfully delayed its standing ovation and triple curtain call until every scintilla of resounding echo had evaporated into the walls.