Requiem: Lamentable Soloists, Great Chorus

The Choral Arts Society's voices enveloped the Kennedy Center on Sunday.
The Choral Arts Society's voices enveloped the Kennedy Center on Sunday. (By Margot Schulman)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The term "wall of sound" is usually applied to Phil Spector's innovations in pop-music recording in the 1960s. But when conductor Norman Scribner took the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage on Sunday afternoon, the massed forces of the Choral Arts Society and the Heritage Signature Chorale that faced him, standing on risers in ranks that reached right up into the balconies, were a living wall of sound indeed: as lush and sensuous and majestic as you could hope for.

The piece was the Verdi Requiem, the most operatic work ever to hide under the heading of religious music, and on Sunday it vibrated with humanity from the chorus's first entrance, a hushed "Requiem" conveying both awe and an underlying warmth that this moment doesn't always get.

Scribner clearly understands this piece in his marrow. The Dies Irae, in which the chorus explodes in an image of terror that evokes the Last Judgment, was perhaps the best I've heard live: the fine orchestra slashing out its chords with the help of a particularly good timpanist, the chorus howling and the trumpets of judgment ringing from the balconies so that the room was enveloped in sound.

If only they had had vocal soloists worthy of their efforts. It's getting harder and harder to find good Verdi singers, and Sunday's foursome -- Alexandra Deshorties, Stacey Rishoi, Yeghishe Manucharyan and Kirk Eichelberger -- was, as so often happens, a couple of sizes too small. They attacked their roles with varying degrees of success. Eichelberger can make a warm, rounded and deep sound, but not consistently on every pitch. Manucharyan produces notes at a uniform level of loudness, slightly nasally, without a lot of sensitivity. Rishoi, evidently fighting a cold, showed at her best a warm mezzo of a good color for the part. Deshorties was the most puzzling. Her sharp-edged voice was very light for the role and had none of the limpidity called for by Verdi's arching lines, but the real issue was that her delivery was consistently eccentric. She sounded as if she were scolding God rather than imploring him. The closing "Libera me, Domine" -- "Free me, O Lord, from eternal death" -- became the utterance of a petulant child.

None of this reflected on either of the choruses, which blended seamlessly. But without top-flight soloists, it was hard for them to maintain the level of excellence throughout the afternoon that they had shown at the beginning.

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