Sunday, May 30, 2004

Mozart 'Requiem' tailored

Concert review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mozart's Requiem Mass, left unfinished at his death, is shrouded in mystery. But perhaps the biggest mystery involves how much of this haunting Mass for the dead the composer actually wrote, and how much was written by others.

On Friday, James Conlon led the Cincinnati May Festival in its first performance of Harvard scholar Robert Levin's completion of the unfinished masterpiece.

Although it was not the large-scale version completed by Franz Sussmayr that most know, it had all the power, depth and drama to make it a thrilling performance.

Onstage was a reduced Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the 140-voice May Festival Chorus (prepared by Robert Porco) and a fine quartet of soloists: soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, mezzo Jill Grove, tenor John Aler and bass-baritone John Cheek.

Levin's version is lightly scored for orchestra; a smaller chorus might have resulted in more transparency.

The most startling difference is the added "Amen" fugue after the slow "Lacrimosa". To me, its brightness came as a jolt. Whether one found the version convincing or not, the chorus sang incisively and with energy and passion.

Conlon, leading without a score, inspired brisk tempos and dark sonorities. The chorus sang the "Kyrie" with power and bite. Enunciation was excellent from beginning to end.

Choral fugues, underscored by the trombones, had powerful momentum. The "Dies Irae" was sung with a furious intensity, and quieter moments, such as the "Agnus Dei", were warmly spiritual.

Although they possess widely different voices, the soloists were exceedingly well matched in ensembles. Murphy's contributions in the "Benedictus" and "Lux Aeterna" were radiant. The mezzo, Grove, blended wonderfully, despite her powerful, Verdian voice.

Not all went smoothly; orchestra and soloists weren't always together in the "Recordare", although the quartet's flowing expression was memorable.

Conlon was a committed, vigorous leader. The orchestra rose to the occasion, with expressive turns in the winds, and wonderful playing by the trombones. The "Rex Tremendae", with its clipped dotted rhythms in the strings and majestic choral sound, was one of the high points.

The nearly sold-out Music Hall crowd (3,144 tickets were sold) approved with a lengthy standing ovation.

In the first half, Murphy made her festival debut in the showpiece, Exsultate, Jubilate, displaying a refined, beautiful tone and agility in the high-flying coloratura passages.

Unfortunately, her pure, light soprano didn't project to every area of the large hall.

To open, the discipline and buoyant sound of the May Festival Youth Chorus, prepared by James Bagwell, impressed in Mozart's Regina Coeli.


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