A much-anticipated local performance of Dvorák’s Requiem, Op. 89, was presented in Meymandi Concert Hall on April 24. The Czech master’s choral music is as attractive as his more shopworn pieces but one can count on the fingers of less than a single hand the scores that have been given hereabouts across the past quarter of a century – a Mass, the Stabat Mater, the Te Deum, and the Requiem. That leaves The Spectre’s Bride (a cantata), the oratorio St. Ludmila, and several lesser works, including Hymnus …. Given the immense popularity of Dvorák’s orchestral music, it is curious that the choral works are not more often revived, particularly since language, a barrier to Americans in the songs, duets, and some of the other choral works (partsongs, folksong settings, etc.) is not a major problem in the larger scores, several of which were composed for English-speaking audiences.

The performance under discussion was an outstanding one that concurrently continued ongoing observations of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. The large choir of the NC Master Chorale – some 140 voices, all told (consisting of c.85 women and c.55 men) – conveyed the music with great intensity and power, overcoming logistics considerations imposed by the distance between the podium and the elevated stalls behind the orchestra where the women stood. Forward of the ladies, directly behind the orchestral ensemble, stood the male singers, whose work was consistently radiant. We’ve often noted the lack of strong tenors in central NC – tenor sections tend to be the smallest in nearly every substantial choir – but on this occasion the work by this group, including the tenors, was rock-solid and rang out, too, much of the time. The reduced orchestra of fifty players, some of whom are members of the NC Symphony, was noticeably short in the string departments, particularly in cellos and basses, resulting in some imbalances here and there, but with Paul Gorski serving as concertmaster the results were generally excellent, and those imbalances seemed to stem from excessive enthusiasm on the parts of wind and brass players rather than any lack of energy or will among the fiddlers. Alfred E. Sturgis prepared the choir and conducted the performance. He moved the large score along smartly, lingering in a few of the most lyrical passages (of which there are many) but for the most part setting ideal tempi that allowed for clean phrasing – and articulation – all around.

The soloists were soprano Sue Lee, whose published bio indicates she sang Violetta with Opera Company of NC “last year” (although it was 2002, she was Jennifer Casey Cabot’s understudy, and her on-stage performance consisted of the dress rehearsal, attended by students…), mezzo-soprano Kathryn Barnes-Burroughs, tenor Stephen Cary, and bass-baritone Jonathan Deutsch. The latter appeared here in March in Berlioz’s Messe Solenelle ; he was in much better voice in the Dvorák, and his contributions were noteworthy throughout. The soprano and the tenor tended to dominate the quartet when all four sang together, but both had several turns on their own. The mezzo’s projection and diction were the weakest of the visitors – she and the tenor, too, are from Alabama – but since a handout included the text and a translation, and since the lights in the hall were left partway up, little was lost.

The score is large, and the mass is divided into thirteen parts, some of which other composers have folded together in single movements. Dvorák’s inclusion of a Graduale , an Offertorium , and a Pie Jesu set the work apart from many other requiems. There was an intermission after part eight (the Lacrymosa). As Sturgis’ excellent program note reminds us, the Requiem was commissioned for a festival in Birmingham, England, intended for concert performances (as opposed to religious services), and the composer led the premiere, in 1891. Sturgis’s notes also reveal that the festival committee initially suggested Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius text later set by Elgar – it is hard to imagine what Dvorák might have made of that !

The chorus is engaged in all the numbers but one (“Recordare, Jesu pie”), and the NCMC merits high praise for exceptional singing in an acoustically superior venue. Sturgis is one of our region’s best choral people, his singers seem delighted with his tenure, and together they can make outstanding music, as they did on this occasion. There were few lapses in coordination and few other glitches aside from rare bits of swamping from the back of the orchestra (that would surely have been corrected at a second performance, if there had been a second performance….).

There was a post-performance discussion with Sturgis and three of the soloists, attended by a small group of attendees. This is a noteworthy innovation in the capital – informal talks have long been hallmarks of major series in other NC cities, and the practice would be welcome here.

On the way out, a long-time veteran of Raleigh Oratorio Society/NCMC performances said that it was, overall, probably the organization’s finest work to date. It gives me great pleasure to second that. Bravo to all concerned.