The Winston-Salem Symphony, the Symphony Chorus, and four stellar soloists, under the leadership of chorus director Christopher Gilliam, presented a lively and profound performance of Mozart’s glorious Requiem Sunday afternoon. Gilliam, conducting the well-prepared chorus of more that 100 singers without a baton, treated the large crowd in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University to a reading marked by lively tempi and a focus on maximum drama.

The Requiem in D minor, K.626, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was left unfinished when the composer died. Several attempts have been made to complete the score over the last couple of centuries; this performance used Robert D. Levin‘s transparent 1990s version. The extensive program notes by David B. Levy clearly explain the convoluted history of the score.

The opening, pleading orchestral introduction leads straight into the dark, slowly unfolding Introit (“Grant them eternal rest”). Balance between the sections and diction throughout the 50-minute work was first-rate.

The fire and brimstone Dies Irae (“Day of wrath”) section was terrifying, with great dynamic shading, something that Gilliam used to great effect here and elsewhere. The jagged rhythm of Rex tremendae (“King of awful majesty”) was strongly marked. The rhythmically vital Confutatis (“When the cursed are all banished”) vividly helped conjure up the flames of hell.

Not all was dramatic, of course. The Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) was gloriously full, and the Domine Jesu (“O Lord, Jesus Christ”) was lyric and flowing. The fugal passages that appeared frequently, were clear and clean, no mean feat considering the size of the chorus.

Ilana Lubitsch, soprano, Stephanie Foley Davis, mezzo-soprano, Daniel Stein, tenor, and Andrew René, bass, were the soloists. Lubitsch displayed her silken voice in the opening Introit. René’s rich voice, especially prominent in his higher register, was first heard in the magnificent Tuba mirum (“A trumpet”), accompanied by the lyric trombone playing by David Wulfeck.*

Stein’s bright tenor rang through in the Mors stupebit (“Death and nature”) section. Davis’ warm and luscious timbre was clearly heard in the Judex ergo (“When therefore the judge”). The balance and blend when the quartet sang together was terrific.

Sometimes Gilliam’s lively tempos seemed to catch the instrumentalists by surprise, as when the scurrying strings had to catch up in the Dies irae, but the overall power and drama of the performance never flagged.

The concert opened with Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D.417 (Tragic). At the podium was WSS assistant conductor Jessica Morel. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the work in 1816 when he was 19. It was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. The four movements (fast-slow-minuet-fast) clock in at a little more than 30 minutes.

The acoustics of Wait Chapel are a bit problematic: it is especially reverberant, which perhaps makes it difficult for the orchestral players to hear each other. Some ragged ensemble was an issue throughout the terse work. I was sitting close to the front, and I had trouble hearing individual wind lines.

The powerful C minor chord that starts the slow introduction gives way to pulsating strings over which a pleading melody is played. Maximum drama is the goal although, at the end of the day, the symphony is primarily cheerful. Morel’s careful and clear conducting style brought out the changing character of the music. When the fast section brings on the pleading string theme, she implored the orchestra to dig in.

The Andante is marked by a congenial main theme which contrasts with more feisty sections. I found the playing of the Minuet to be particularly striking with its Beethoven-esque syncopation. The finale returns the sense of urgency present in the first movement, although by the end, triumphant C major appears.

The concert, specifically the Requiem, was dedicated to the memory of Bu P. Scherf, 49, a long-time bassist and librarian for the symphony.

This program repeats Tuesday, April 2, in the same venue. See our sidebar for details.


Edited 4/2/19: trombonist’s name corrected: “[T]he Tuba mirum in the Mozart Requiem is one of the great moments for tenor trombone, expertly played by WSS 2nd trombonist David WulfeckBrian is back there … on alto trombone this week!” – WSS Facebook post.

Edited again 4/26/19.