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Symphony review: ‘Requiem’ performance was hugely satisfying

Fresh from plowing through another foot of snow, musicians from all over the region gathered at Symphony Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Saturday night to share Giuseppi Verdi’s immortal tribute to an Italian novelist very dear to his own heart.

Nearly 300 people were on the stage: the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, the DSSO Chorus (Matthew Olsen, director), the UMD University Singers (Stanley Wold, director) and the Minnesota Chorale (Kathy Romey, director).

Likewise fresh to our eyes was the array of singers on a magnificent set of risers, now known as the “Robert and Barbara Ballou Chorus Risers,” a generous gift from Bob Ballou and his participation in the DSSO Chorus since its inception in 1959.

Music Director Dirk Meyer crossed to the podium, preceded by guest soloists Tammy Tyburczy (soprano), Blythe Gaissert (mezzo-soprano), John C. Pierce (tenor) and Seth Keeton (bass-baritone). With an appropriate silence, the solemn opening of Verdi’s “Messe de Requiem (1874)” began. This is a work that begins and ends darkly, though it has its share of brilliance and light throughout.

Frequently, a soloist would engage in dialogue with the chorus, and sometimes the solo quartet would carry the emotion on its own. Tyburczy has a clear, precise soprano, which easily carries over the fullest ensemble. Even so, her delicacy during the “Agnus Dei” was memorable. Mezzo Gaissert offered an exquisite low parallel during the “Agnus Dei,” and I enjoyed her full, round sound every time she came forward to sing. Keeton’s bass voice was both mellow and full, arching out across the DECC with ease, in spite of singing a lot about the fierce flames waiting for the evil-doers after death.

Tenor John Pierce, with about two weeks’ notice following a cancellation from Jason Collins, carried the operatic tenor part with confidence. I wanted the “Ingemisco” to be more passionate and sensitive, but it seemed that Pierce and Meyer wanted to keep the guilty sinner sternly under control.

As a quartet, these four shone immensely. Their renditions of the “Lacrymosa,” and later the “Hostias,” were deeply sensitive, as Meyer and the DSSO were warmly supportive. The chorus was as dynamic and operatic as anything Verdi ever composed. All three choruses sounded well-rehearsed, and I suspect the new risers gave a glorious projection to their singing out across the top of the orchestra. For Verdi’s dreadfulness, the “Dies Irae” (“Days of Wrath”) with Gene Koshinski on the exploding bass drum occurs four times throughout the Requiem. The chorus was fresh and riveting each time.

As the beauty of the “Lux Aeterna” (“Light Eternal”) is followed by the hope of deliverance — “Libera Me” — the ensemble ends darkly, with hope merely a suggestion.

The DSSO and Meyer were resonant and sensitive all evening. From beginning to end, Meyer has a sense of direction that is true and confident. He can sing with the choir, explode with the percussion and carry long string melodies richly along. The brass on stage and around the auditorium created a surrounded feeling, although it’s a relief to know that Verdi’s sense of Requiem, while not very restful, was typical of the agitated Italian world he lived in.

For the audience at the DECC, as well as viewing on WDSE at home, the unifying musical evening was hugely satisfying. Enjoy the passion of Verdi, but do form your own theological response!

Samuel Black is a Duluth musician/writer who thrives on opera, even when it pretends to be a requiem.