Voice adds depth to symphony performances

Courtney Lewis

Strangely enough for an orchestra, we’ve heard a lot of the human voice recently at the Jacksonville Symphony. The Christmas season began with “Messiah,” and in January we welcomed a cast from around the country for Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” Last weekend we performed Maurice Ravel’s sensuous ballet, “Daphnis et Chloé,” complete with an enormous chorus that sang no words, only “ah.” Next month features Verdi’s magisterial Requiem Mass, which has been described as an opera in ecclesiastical robes.

All music began with singing, and for many of us, singing was the way into music. There is something primal about listening to a great singer: something more personal, vulnerable and expressive than an instrumentalist. Indeed, the greatest compliment we often give to violinists and pianists is that their playing “sings.” For me there is always a feeling of things-being-slightly-more-exciting-than-usual when we play with singers, and it’s in part due to this added emotional immediacy many inject into their performances. I’ve enjoyed working with the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus over the past few months, and I’m delighted that we have such wonderful partners in the University of North Florida Chorale.

Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813, coincidentally the same year as his German rival, Richard Wagner. He spent his splendid career writing many operas, notably “Il trovatore,” “Rigoletto,” “La traviata” and “Otello.” When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi suggested that a group of famous Italian composers write a Requiem Mass in his honor, one movement each. Verdi contributed the Libera me, and although the project fell apart, Verdi remained interested in his own composition. In 1873 the writer Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had admired his work for decades, seeing in him the model of an internationally-recognized Italian artist. Verdi decided to write a Requiem in his memory, incorporating the old Libera me.

The work is conceived on the grandest scale. The weight of the genre’s history weighed heavily: Verdi spent time in Paris reading the scores of Mozart and Berlioz’s Requiems before beginning his own sketches. The Messa begins with a religious tone of seriousness and profundity entirely different from anything in his operas, but Verdi brings his dramatic skills to the religious text in a unique way. At the beginning of the Dies Irae (the plainchant that describes the day in which the earth will be judged and turned to fire and ash), we feel the sheer panic of human beings in the face of the Apocalypse through the chorus’s wailing melody, while deafening strikes of an enormous bass drum make us feel as though the earth is about to crumble right before our eyes. Additionally, the piece ends without the warm and fuzzy affirmation of say, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. We aren’t imagining the dead glowing in eternal sunshine. Instead, the soprano soloist nervously articulates the ultimate cliff-hanger: “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day” on one note, rapidly, like a prayer someone might recite to themselves in the face of danger. We leave her begging God for help, unsure of the outcome.

Verdi’s Requiem fuses the dramatic intensity of Italian opera with one of the Church’s most unsettling texts. It’s a space in which to ponder some of life’s most serious questions, accompanied by a guide that is unusually human: Verdi’s music.

By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony