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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died on December 5, 1791, attempting to finish his enduring masterpiece, the Requiem. But even in its somewhat truncated form (completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr), the work set a high standard for future Requiem composers with it economical but consummate depiction of mourning, dread, supplication, and exaltation.
Raleigh's new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral is certainly an appropriate venue for such a work. When the North Carolina Symphony and North Carolina Master Chorale announced a performance in this fifth largest Catholic cathedral in the U.S., with its 80-foot ceilings and seating for 2,000, the building's acoustics were an obvious point of interest.
Judging by the Thursday, November 16 presentation (from a seat about six rows back), the space allows for clear delineation of solo voices and instruments, along with thrilling choral effects at both ends of the dynamic range. Inevitably, when orchestra and chorus are going full force, there can be difficulties in differentiating various musical lines and deciphering the text because of the reverberation. But overall, the acoustics are impressive in their expansiveness and presence.
Much of the positive impression from this first hearing came from guest conductor Douglas Boyd, whose precise cues and vivid gestures were not only instructive to the performers but also to the audience. His obvious familiarity with the work and his deep feeling for its wonders made the performance one great arc of gripping awe and emotion. His tempos were brisk but never rushed and always sensitive to Mozart's myriad changes of mood and dynamics.
Of course this could not have occurred without a fully prepared chorus, and the NC Master Chorale was in particularly fine fettle here. Its music director, Alfred E. Sturgis has honed his singers into a first-rate ensemble, as evidenced by their spring-loaded responses to Boyd's prompts. The great outbursts of "Rex," in the "Rex tremendae" portion of the Sequentia, were chilling in their ferocity and marvelous in their dying reverberation, astutely allowed for by Boyd. On the other end of the spectrum, the women's phrase, "Voca me cum benedictis" in the "Confutatis maledictis" section, wafted ethereally in the vast open space. The chorus of about 50 singers impressed with their blend and unity, equally adept at the gentle sway of the "Lacrimosa" and the bright acclamation of the Sanctus.
The four soloists worked well together. With his bright, clear tenor, Thomas Cooley was particularly engaging, a combination of the tenor part's lively writing and the performer's detailed response to it. Baritone Michael Sumuel had a rounded, warm tone that blended nicely but sometimes didn't speak strongly on its own. Soprano Mireille Asselin floated her phrases with a lovely lightness, and mezzo soprano Sofia Selowsky sang her lines with a firm edge. The quartet's highly satisfying performance of the "Benedictus" had a lyrical sweetness that would have fit right into one of Mozart's operas.
The orchestra, reduced in size per Mozart's requirements (two basset horns, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, organ and strings), also responded subtly to Boyd's every move. It was especially fulfilling when heard most clearly in gentle passages accompanying the solo quartet and in the quieter choral sections.
The Requiem will likely take on a different feel in the performances Friday and Saturday in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall and Sunday in Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall, where the acoustics will allow more detail to shine through. But choral performances in large church spaces have their own appeal, indicated by this thoroughly gratifying one in Raleigh's grand new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.
For more information on the upcoming performances see the sidebar.