Why do people willingly get dressed up and head out in the dark to hear funeral music when no one has died? Three words: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
There have been dozens or hundreds of other musical settings of the Requiem mass, but history will record that it was Mozart’s final work, composed as he himself was dying, that secured the place of the Requiem in today’s sea of live classical music programs.
In the hands of the National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorale along with some startlingly fine soloists at The Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night, Mozart’s Requiem not only called out to the ages again but presented some fresh colors, especially on its more hopeful notes mixed in with all the fear and trembling.
Soprano Danielle Talamantes, now in her third season at the Metropolitan Opera, went well beyond mere fluency in the Mozart writing and demonstrated a notable dexterity of approach to the music. Equally capable of punching out a high note or suddenly floating above it as either the lyrics or her three solo colleagues’ lines demanded it, Danielle beautifully followed the chorus and orchestra’s declarative opening of Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”) with a remarkably sweet-sounding Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion (“Thou, O God, art praised in Zion”).
Danielle’s approach gave the entire ensemble a great deal of space to rise up again in sound and drama as the first part of the Requiem continued on to Mozart’s heavily contrapuntal Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy on us”) where the singers and orchestra spin lines around one another in a dizzying display of runs and leaps, followed by a dramatic theme on Dies irae (“Day of wrath”) that is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Amadeus.
That made her an excellent match for perhaps the stealthy star of the performance, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor. Mozart’s writing seldom gives the mezzo line top billing even for a while – many of the Requiem’s sequences either build from the bass up or, alternatively, the soprano line “throws” first to the tenor who then bounces it back over to the mezzo. But Magdalena’s voice is so redolent of colors and shades in her lower notes, and so remarkably warm on any rise up in the line, that it is the perfect vehicle for a part that is actually marked “Alto” or even “Contralto” in the original work.
Magdalena also demonstrated a rare and, in my view, underrated skill in this type of performance – superb stage presence for an assignment that requires the four soloists to sit in chairs for long stretches until their turn to join in the music comes. Absorbed in the music of her solo compatriots as well as the roughly 40 instrumentalists and 180 chorus singers behind her, Magdalena’s lines seemed to grow organically not only out of whichever soloist’s theme came before her but also out of the “secret sauce” of the orchestration – unusually rich writing for middle-range instruments such as the viola, the upper of two bassoons, and two clarinet-like instruments somewhat misleadingly called “basset horns.”
Tenor Robert Baker‘s singing was accurate and attractive. Baritone Christopheren Nomura sparkled in relatively middle and higher ranges even if not necessarily producing the basso profundo effects at the beginning of lines that some performances and recordings feature in an attempt to reinforce the Requiem’s darker aspects.
Conductor Stan Engebretson led his assembled forces with skill and ease – at times perhaps too much so. The fantastic acoustics at Strathmore were almost too good for Engebretson’s lickety-split tempo for Dies Irae. With the chorus and orchestra racing through the theme, the notes reverberating in the hall almost sounded like they were going to war with one another. I would suggest that Mozart’s writing here, which includes insistent timpani notes, a doubling-up of the violin lines where each rapidly descending note is played twice instead of once, and an underlying organ continuo produces enough apocalyptic drama on its own without forcing the issue.
But special kudos are due the bass section of the National Philharmonic Chorale for launching a theme also featured in Amadeus that sounds even more frightening in Latin than it does in English, Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis (“When the accursed have been confounded and given over to the bitter flames”). Somewhat outgunning the Chorale’s tenor section – a not-unknown phenomenon with choruses around the country – the men of the Chorale still effectively handed over the Confutatis theme to the ethereal response of the sopranos and altos, Voca me cum benedictis (“Call me with the blessed”) for a truly sublime Strathmore moment.
Also sublime was a featured piece for soprano solo and chamber orchestra that preceded the Requiem. In fact, Danielle Talamantes truly shone in Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate (“Exult, rejoice”), a very different sort of composition dating from Mozart’s teenage years. The piece in three connected movements – with formally structured cadenzas (or a capella solo virtuoso passages) that begin after the prescribed chord in classical form – is written exactly like a concerto for an instrument and orchestra where the instrument in this case happens to be the human voice.
Given this, Danielle resisted the temptation to make the lyrics an afterthought to the notes. In fact, she has a remarkable knack of subtly developing and lengthening a vowel and then clearly and deliberately pasting on a final consonant without falling out of the tempo. In the third movement of Exsultate, jubilate – where Mozart dispenses with the “story” and gives the singer exactly one word to repetitively sing, Alleluja! – Danielle went to town with her dramatic soprano side and pasted her high notes to the back wall of the concert hall.
Along the way, the orchestra could have done more to vary its dynamics as much as the singer was doing – Danielle, unamplified as opera singers are trained to be, was a little hard to hear in her gentle opening phrases – and the back chairs of the violins could have been more precise in joint entrances with the singer during the second movement. But once again, the National Philharmonic’s compact and excellent viola section carried off their lines beautifully.
The National Philharmonic repeated the Mozart program one time today at 3 PM, but Washington-area audiences need not fear on hearing Danielle Talamantes again, as she returns to Strathmore next February 8, 2015 to join the National Philharmonic in the final choral movement of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony. While underplayed in her bio, Danielle is a 1998 graduate of Virginia Tech, no doubt a point of pride for the huge cohort of Hokies in our area and an unusual, striking background for a singer who will enjoy her first solo role at the Met this season, as VT’s alumni magazine was recently happy to point out. One can expect her to be featured with more of the D.C. area’s leading orchestras and choruses in the years to come.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
National Philharmonic: Mozart’s Requiem played on Saturday, November 1, 2014 at 8:00 PM at The Music Center at Strathmore -5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. There is one more performance today at 3 PM. For tickets, call the box office (301) 581-5100. For future events, check their events calendar.
Danielle Talamantes’ website.
Magdalena Wor’s website.