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We have come to expect much from any production of which Rodney Wynkoop is the director: a superbly trained chorus, a finely prepared instrumental ensemble and a knowledge of music and the composer's intentions that leads to a listening experience that is unforgettable. That is exactly what the sold-out audience in Duke Chapel on Sunday afternoon, April 17, got in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. The combined chorus included the Duke Chapel Choir, the Duke Chorale, and the Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham. The orchestra of selected local musicians was a little short in the string sections but mostly held its own and certainly played with outstanding verve. The four soloists, all appearing for the first time in Duke Chapel, brought depth and variety of experience in both opera and concert appearances. Steffanie Pearce, soprano, Christina Wilcox, mezzo-soprano, Jeffrey Springer, tenor and Philip Kraus, bass, in solo sections and ensemble portions of the Requiem, provided thrilling moments throughout the performance.
Sometimes referred to as "God's own opera," the Requiem indeed draws heavily on Verdi's mastery of the theatrical format. It germinated from a community effort wherein twelve different Italian composers each wrote a movement of a requiem to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of the great Gioacchino Rossini (1785-1873). Alas, though the compositions were all done, to Verdi's great disappointment, the performance did not take place.* When Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian writer and patriot died three years later (in 1871), Verdi resolved to pick up the "Libera me" he had composed and to complete the work as a tribute to his greatly-admired friend. Actually, the project had been in his thoughts after the failure of the Rossini tribute. So after the completion of Aïda, Verdi poured his fervent emotions into what he may have thought would be his final creative statement. (It was only through some near-miraculous – for us – interventions that Verdi came out of retirement a dozen years later to compose, in his 70s, his last two incredible operas – Otello and Falstaff – and the Four Sacred Pieces.)
To hear Verdi's powerful Requiem is to experience an emotional rollercoaster ride from despair to hope, from remorse to forgiveness, and from grief to acceptance – by way of prayer, worship, and exuberant praise. It begins with a whisper in the cellos before the basses and tenors, in open fifths, chant "Eternal rest grant them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." Shortly, the chorus, unaccompanied, breaks into a full-voiced hymn of praise. The tenor, followed by the bass and then the soprano and the mezzo, start us into the Kyrie – the prayer for mercy. By this point, my inner voice was already telling me, "This is special."
I glanced briefly down at my program to check the names of the soloists and was jolted out of my brief reverie when Wynkoop brought down his baton and the big bass drums, brass, and full orchestra responded with a sharp summons and the Chapel exploded with "Day of wrath, day of judgment." I don't recall ever before being able to hear the chorus sound so overpowering and shattering. Then the trumpets summon the graves to be opened. In the ambience of Duke Chapel, they seemed to come from above – and all around, since Verdi's score calls for off-stage trumpets. The next highlight was provided by Kraus singing "Mors stupebit" – "Death shall be stunned (by resurrection)." It was almost too personal – this powerful voice, even when singing pianissimo, reached every person who was fortunate enough to get a seat. One of the memorable highlights of the Requiem for me occurs after the chorus whispers "Dies irae" one more time, in awe of what has just gone on. Then there is a brief interlude with a brass chordal arpeggio leading up to the soprano entrance – "Judex ergo cum sedebit" ("When therefore the judge is seated"). It is only three or four measures, but it is like a bright beam of light streaming straight out of heaven, and it hovers in my mind as a ray of promise and hope.
The highlights continued with the yearning "Salva me," the prayer for salvation which concludes the "Dies Irae." Then there was the powerful "Rex tremendae" and the tender and beautiful "Recordare," allowing Pearce and Wilcox to warm our hearts. Springer's singing of the "Ingemisco" was lyrical and riveting. The soloists blended well in the ensemble passages, and each projected with some of the finest diction I can recall. Several places in the "Offertorio" brought the hair up on the back of my neck. This could go on page by page throughout the score, but I feel some need to exercise constraint, which I don't do very well when it comes to such music as this.... I must however mention the "Sanctus," which was exuberant praise with wings – a marvelous chorus projecting joy in the voices. There is so much more, but I feel for sure my time is up.
A reception for Rodney Wynkoop at the Washington Duke Inn following the performance celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of his tenure as Director of Chapel Music. It provided a pleasant repast, conversation with friends, some good-natured humor, and well-deserved and heartfelt praise for this extraordinary musician and human being who has brought so much pleasure to so many people in Duke Chapel and far beyond. One more time – "Thanks, Rodney."
*The Messa per Rossini, which contains the first version of Verdi's "Libera me" and contributions by many other composers, was premiered and recorded in 1988 – and telecast soon thereafter. The first recording was issued by hänssler (98402).