Chorale's Verdi Requiem: Appropriately Operatic

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

For sheer excitement, few moments in music match the onslaught of sound that opens the "Dies Irae" of Verdi's Requiem. Conductor Donald McCullough gave the passage its full, red-blooded impact -- brass pealing forth with unbuttoned vitality, bass drum thudding with suitably apocalyptic zest -- when he conducted his Master Chorale and Master Chorale Orchestra in the Requiem at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday.

McCullough was keenly in touch with the work's operatic flavor, from his very slow and hushed treatment of the opening measures of the "Kyrie" through the expansive grandeur he brought to the big choral climax near the end of the "Libera me." Throughout the performance, he drew keenly focused, full-bodied sound and sensitive pointing of the text from his roughly 150 choristers.

The soloists had the kind of meaty, large-scale voices this score demands. Soprano Jennifer Wilson may lack a forceful chest voice, but her soaring, long-held high notes were pretty spectacular. Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith made up for a certain lack of subtlety and Mediterranean warmth by ringing the rafters. Mezzo Marietta Simpson's loosened vibrato couldn't mask her telling way with phrasing. And -- best of all -- Morris Robinson used his gorgeously rich and sepulchral bass to find a thrilling, oracular authority in all his music.

McCullough's decision to employ theatrical lighting, evocatively designed by Martha Mountain, managed to underscore the outsize emotions in the piece, without seeming extraneous.

-- Joe Banno

© 2007 The Washington Post Company