Arguably, an excellent performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Requiem Mass is as familiar and popular as his world-renowned operas, and a superb performance can be profoundly moving. Eloquently attired Maestro Danny Stewart with Santa Cruz Symphony in conjunction with the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, well prepared by Director Cheryl Anderson, provided just such an experience to close the 2016-17 Santa Cruz Symphony season. It was monumental and compelling throughout the 90-minute performance! The May concert coincides with the premiere performance composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, Italian poet whom Verdi admired. The first performance took place on May 22, 1874 in the San Marco Cathedral, Milan.The four soloists selected by Maestro Stewart were remarkable and worked well both individually and in ensemble. The soloists were soprano Michelle Bradley, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Stuart A. Neill and bass Peixen Chen. Stewart maintained an uncompromisingly close rapport with the soloists, orchestra and chorus throughout the concert. Directing from memory without a score, Stewart’s eye contact and gestures including peripheral glances in cuing the off-stage trumpets located to the right and left high above the audience, reflected his in-depth understanding of Verdi’s compositional intentions. At times Stewart looked up directly to the chorus located in the seats behind the orchestra and drew attention to the entire orchestra as they shaped simultaneously the choral passages from the opening “Requiem” through to the final closing “Libera me” (Deliver Me).
Stewart guided and balanced with dynamic clarity the liturgical and operatic elements that followed the serenity of the opening moments — drawing our attention beyond any doubt to Verdi’s central conflict between terror and consolation. This contrast began with the opening plea Requiem aeternam dona eis (Grant them rest). The sotto voce (in a quiet voice) was almost whispered by the large choir, sung against a mournful descent gesture by the strings. Stewart understood the musical, dynamic contrast between the pleas of post-mortal redemption and terrifying horror of Judgment Day. The Dies irae brought to mind scenes from Dante’s Inferno where darkness far outweighs light and hope.
With this in mind the four soloists demonstrated a wide variety of vocal styles with soprano Michelle Bradley’s clean projection in many passages, notably in beautiful lines of the Lacrimosa. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano demonstrated her magnificent artistry throughout. Tenor Stuart Neill in Ingemisco tamquam reus (I groan as a guilty one) and Hostias et preces tibi (We offer to You) and Bass Chen in Mors stupebit et natura (Death and Nature shall stand amazed) were superb.
Maestro Danny Stewart was inspiring, and brought compelling emotional depth to the Santa Cruz Symphony, Chorus and soloists. They rose to an extraordinary artistic level high above their usual excellent playing. Particular mention should given to Mary Hargrove (piccolo), Erin Irvine (bassoon in Quid sum section), Norman Peck (bass drum) and Kumiko Ito (timpanis, whose percussive punctuations were spot on in Mors stupebit et natura. Offstage Fanfare trumpeters Graham Taylor, Rick Leder, Kenneth Olsen and Stephen Ruppenthal added depth and flare to the overall performance. At the end Maestro Stewart held the last moment of silence for some 12 seconds, during which not even a whisper could be heard creating a wonderful sense of artistic drama. The silence was deafening.
Bravo Maestro, orchestra, chorus and soloists for truly a monumental performance!