The calendar reminds us of the relationship of our society and religion. This week is one of those times of year when people may make their only annual visit to a church or synagogue, while those who are regular attendees or church musicians are expected (or required) to show up more than usual.
While religion is just a shadow of its formerly influential self (setting aside the states ruled by fundamentalists), it has left vestiges scattered through our lives, in the oaths we swear in court, the promises we make when we get married, and the ways we say goodbye to loved ones who have passed away.
Today, in the middle of Holy Week I was present for an experiment, a semi-staged version of Mozart’s Requiem directed by Joel Ivany, at Canadian Stage’s Rehearsal Room. I feel lucky and privileged to have been present to see something Ivany called a workshop presentation of Mozart’s Requiem that he’ll be doing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra next January. Next year’s Requiem will employ an orchestra of sixty players or so, with a chorus of forty singers or so inside Roy Thomson Hall. For the workshop, however, Ivany employed eight soloists –that is, the usual complement of four vocal soloists (soprano Ambur Braid, alto Rihab Chaieb, tenor Chris Enns and bass Aaron Durand), plus another four to sing the respective sections of the chorus (soprano Meher Pavri, alto Danielle MacMillan, tenor Joshua Wales and bass James Michael Baldwin) —with a single pianist (Jenna Douglas) all conducted by Robert Cooper.
Unlike your usual Requiem, where singers are formally attired, stiffly standing with scores in black folders, this was an exploration of something different, befitting Ivany’s description of a “workshop presentation”. As with the Against the Grain Messiah presented in December 2013, the singers moved and inter-acted, having memorized their music. While that occasion included a choreographic component as well, that might seem inappropriate here, considering the subject; I suppose I’m contrasting the celebratory aspect of Messiah with the fundamentally mournful character of a Requiem.
The question I posed in the headline is a fundamentally dramaturgical one. Recognizing that performance is a process for performers and for the auditor, how does it work and what is the effect, or in other words “what does this Requiem do”?
The experiment can be understood in several contexts.
- One can look at Mozart’s original and ask fundamentally what that work does, even before one decides on an approach. Does it mourn, does it celebrate, and how does one reconcile the prayerful with the performative aspect: the fact that soloists seem to be addressing God, at times in prayer even as the singing unavoidably shows off their abilities. Does one choose to embrace the virtuoso element (an approach that is very much out of fashion for the past half century or so), or seek to subsume that element in a pure portrayal of the textual / prayer element (as this workshop indeed seemed to prefer to do)?
- What does the Latin text supply, whether we come to it as existing before Mozart or if we attempt to bring it into our own much more secular time? How do we reconcile ourselves to the questions of mortality & mourning, and what part do they have in our lives? Will it be a specialized ritual set off from our normal life –and that’s what we get when we dress in black, and assume specialized language & posture—or somehow normalized? How much mourning can we even handle?
- What does it imply that the singers are dressed informally, in fact very much the way I was dressed having come from a normal Wednesday? At one time church was a place every bit as formal of dress as the concert hall, and still a place where I am uncomfortable attending without dressing nicely. Is this a deconstruction –of Requiem and of the rituals of mourning—or simply a more normal way of embracing death and its emblems, without stiffness and possibly with more emotional authenticity?
- The work is in several movements, segmented as per the text (eg the Offertory, Sanctus or Agnus Dei), yet there appear to be portrayals and interactions, emotions expressed that may or may not arise from the text. There were some very emotional moments for cast that seemed to continue straight through from one segment to the next, even though the music comes to a full stop, the text implying a new thought. The movements & inter-actions appear to be motivated by the preparation that Ivany gave his cast, exploring the themes of a Requiem, of loss & mortality.
I found that with the Against the Grain Messiah my momentary resistance melted in the presence of a compelling musical performance, in the pleasure of a whole new way of seeing a familiar work. Similar feelings & thoughts were with me this time, even though we were in the presence of something darker, and still wonderfully dynamic and unfinished. There are clearly unexplored possibilities that Ivany likely will explore in future interpretations / incarnations. I don’t pretend to understand it –what it’s doing, what it aims to do, what it means–but then again I’m a bit overpowered by the intensity of it, and I say that in the spirit of having my senses filled to overflowing.
The performance today in this little space with an audience of roughly sixty was very special, with possibilities for intimate communication that can’t happen in the bigger space with the larger forces, although the trade-off of the chamber approach is in sacrificing the possibilities for the wallop of big climaxes from a full orchestra & chorus. I can’t help wondering how it will work with the TSO, a forty-member chorus, conducted by Bernard Labadie and in Roy Thomson Hall, which seats roughly 2,000.
That will be yet another experiment.