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Stephane Deneve's Passionate Requiem

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C01

It may not make any Chamber of Commerce list of "10 Reasons to Move to Washington," but one of the real rewards of life in the capital region is the disproportionate number of choruses here. In any given year, we can expect to hear most of the masterpieces in the repertory -- the two great Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," Requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Berlioz and Faure, and many other works. Among major American cities, it is a safe bet that only New York offers more opportunities to hear the teaming of voices.

Last night, the National Symphony Orchestra, in tandem with the Washington Chorus, presented the first of three performances of Giuseppe Verdi's fiercely dramatic Requiem at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of Stephane Deneve. It was Deneve's third appearance with the orchestra and his third success. And, with the NSO's current music director, Leonard Slatkin, on his way out, Deneve is naturally being watched with some intensity.

Stephane Deneve directed the NSO and the Washington Chorus in a grand and glorious performance.

He began the Requiem by summoning some of the quietest playing I've ever heard from the orchestra, after which the chorus entered with an appropriately ghostly whisper. It was clear that Deneve planned this performance on a grand scale -- a sort of Sistine Chapel in music. And sure enough, the "Dies Irae," with its whistling piccolos, furious timpani, wraithlike buzzing from strings, brass blaring from the rafters and seemingly terror-stricken shouts from the chorus made for a grand and glorious noise.

The soloists were neatly blended and full partners in the evening's success. Three of them -- soprano Marina Mescheriakova, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and bass Ildar Abdrazakov -- are Russian and they brought a welling Eastern intensity to the music that still remained true to Verdi's Italian lyricism. Only Mescheriakova disappointed somewhat -- she had to squeak out some of the high notes in the "Libera Me." But Borodina was exhilarating, with her grand, dark, plummy voice and feverish urgency of expression, and Marcus Haddock sang the tenor part with dashing ardor.

Deneve's tempos were mostly fast -- unusually so in the "Dies Irae" -- but never felt forced. On the contrary, one had the sense that the performance was both carefully planned and eagerly impulsive, a good mix for this extraordinarily inventive and passionate music. This is one of those works that never fail to thrill a first-time listener; unlike most such pieces, which usually reveal a certain cheapness upon revisiting, however, it grows only more exciting as we come to know it better.

It has often been noted that Verdi was not a traditional religionist -- quite the contrary, in fact -- but he certainly evokes the most vivid and horrifying "day of wrath" in the repertory. Verdi's biographer Francis Toye once called the Requiem "a kind of sacred opera on the Last Judgment" and that pretty well sums it up; certainly, it is the most operatic of the great choral pieces.

The Washington Chorus sounded wonderfully flexible -- hushed and explosive by turn -- and the occasional less-than-tidy entrance was easily forgiven under such circumstances. The star of the evening -- after Verdi, of course -- was Deneve, who has the energy and intelligence to pull together several hundred people and a highly complicated score, and then the courage and conviction to soar with it. The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company