Andrew Davis – Verdi Requiem

Sir Andrew Davis

The Toronto Symphony are celebrating a 40 year relationship with Sir Andrew Davis, their one-time music director (from 1975-1988) and currently their Conductor Laureate, with a series of concerts over the next couple of weeks.

Tonight’s concert featured Verdi’s Requiem, an ideal work for this sort of occasion. The orchestra gets some powerful moments that knock your socks off, the soloists each have an opportunity to shine.  To be honest I’ve never experienced a performance of this work that managed to be anything more than a series of beautiful moments, possibly because I don’t sense that Verdi understood the mass as anything more than an opportunity for theatre, rather than something genuinely spiritual: although Davis gave it a good try.

The best of the big effects came in the first part, especially the “tuba mirum”, with brass situated in the audience for a three-dimensional effect of the trumpets of judgment, the apocalypse in music.  Davis was his usual energetic self, propelling the ensemble along at a good pace, achieving a true romantic sublime.

The entrance of the soloists in the Kyrie showed us what a splendid quartet had been engaged for the occasion.  They were a curious foursome, comprised of two young women and two experienced men, perhaps an echo of the occasion honouring the Conductor Laureate, who has been a mentor to at least one of the young women.  Both soprano Amber Wagner and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton seem (at least as far as I can surmise from their biographies in the program) to be in the first five years of their professional careers, while tenor Frank Lopardo and bass Eric Owens are at least mid-career professionals.  While Barton & Lopardo are new to Toronto, we’ve seen Wagner & Owens in a pair of title roles with the Canadian Opera Company (she as Ariadne in 2011, he as Hercules last season).

Owens brought a genuine humanity to his reading.  His ”mors stupebit” was the most genuine depiction of the bewilderment of death I have ever seen at this moment in the Requiem, an approach perhaps more like something from verismo than Verdi, in the delivery of lines in something like a soft parlando.  But he was in the moment as though delivering lines in a film, and thus was very effective, very powerful.

Lopardo could also offer a very vulnerable soft sound, or something more spectacular and befitting a public ritual.  He sang the opening in C minor of his “ingemisco” in the most delicate pianissimo, but then opened up once the major passage begins, with genuine squillo and a completely reliable top throughout.

I had been told to watch out for Barton, whom I have never heard before.  Apparently she was in the Houston Walküre opposite Christine Goerke (and maybe I saw something via social media).  Every note was powerful, clear, perfectly pitched, and now i know why she is considered one to watch.

I wonder if Davis asked to work with Wagner, who made her COC debut as Ariadne under Davis’s baton almost exactly four years ago, when Adrianne Pieczonka was indisposed.  The voice has a spectacular colour, at times reminding me of a Leontyne Price for her full and powerful top.  She may be young but the voice is already a big deal, worth hearing.

Amber Wagner and Jamie Barton, with the Toronto Symphony (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

Amber Wagner and Jamie Barton, with the Toronto Symphony (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

This is one of the pieces that shows off the Mendelssohn Choir to advantage.  At times they were as subtle as a whisper, as for example the first delicate notes of the piece.  But when power and passion were called for they had it.

The Requiem will be repeated Friday & Saturday nights.

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