Monday, June 22, 2009

Philly Orchestra season closer: An earthly delight

In the face of economic woes and minor crises in leadership, the Philadelphia Orchestra has soldiered on to produce an admirable, intermittently dazzling subscription season. Charles Dutoit and the Orchestra brought it to a close with performances of Berlioz's Requiem, a piece whose ambition and tumult seemed a perfect finale to a season that exhibited plenty of both.

With themes of the afterlife and light shining on the souls of the departed, the words "celestial" or "heavenly" are applied to this Requiem and others. I came away with the impression of a more earthly delight, more rooted in human frailty and failings than in the firmament.

Dutoit initially took a big-picture approach, guiding the orchestra lightly through the winding scalar figures that churn through the first several movements. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, at 160 voices rather than the 400 or so that Berlioz recommended, seemed a little underpowered in the "Introitus" but found its footing in the "Dies irae." That chaotic movement threatened to come totally unglued, with four brass choruses spread throughout the hall's second tier and their sound's dissipation into space distorted entrances and rhythms. I'm not sure if there would have been an ideal spot in the hall to hear all four, but they eventually fell into line and joined with four (though it might have been more) sets of timpani to produce a very satisfying roar.

After the stormy "Dies irae," the moments of hush in the ensuing movements were even more pleasing. The Chorale showed immaculate blend, especially in the unaccompanied "Quarens me," and responded strongly to Dutoit's cues, matching the contour he brought to the strings' playing.

What established this Requiem as earthly, in the best sense, rather than heavenly was the sixth movement, the pleading "Lacrymosa." Stabs from the violins gradually transformed into savage blows from brass and percussion that answered pitiful cries of "Save me" from the singers. Dutoit dropped his usual cool detachment and dug in earnestly, gesturing broadly but without putting a stranglehold on the music. The gritty, fevered element of the music resonated strongly; salvation seemed imperiled.

The rest of the concert strove more actively for a feeling of distant, radiant beams. The chorus was hushed but penetrating in the "Offertorium," and the men of the chorus exhibit fine tuning and blended in the "Hostias." In one instance of a forced hand attempting to impart a heavenly sensation, tenor Paul Groves sang his solo in the "Sanctus" from the highest reaches of Verizon Hall. Rather than sounding celestial, it was alienating. Being able to see facial expressions, body language and the mouth's shaping of vowels is vital to appreciating and attempting to understand any singer's performances, and it was dissatisfying to be denied that connection. Groves' sound, though disembodied, was impressive, with a clear, tremulous tone and a loving, lingering approach to his syllables.

The closing "Agnus Dei," with its revisiting of earlier movements, was alternately impassioned and detached, piling up many of the preceding themes and emotions. This pileup in the form of a prayer leads, of course, to the final "Amen." To reach that final exhalation, that sense of final consolation, I get the sense that both listener and performer have to go through hell, and Berlioz's Requiem, diffuse and difficult by its nature, does give you hell. The composer demanded an over-sized orchestra and chorus and wrote, for those forces, a roughly 90-minute work. The ambition of the piece, to me, embodies the desire to create something titanic immortal through art.

Why, then, try to give so much gloss to this very earthly striving? At times, the orchestra's performance aimed for the rafters instead of the heart. It might have benefited from more of the spirit of the "Lacrymosa," where the pleasures of heaven seem threatened, infusing the surrounding movements. A Requiem isn't all angels and harps and lux perpetua. Give us the sweat, the grit, the feeling we just might not be worthy.

For another take: DPS in the Inquirer.

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