Washington Chorus Performs Verdi's Requiem at the Kennedy Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Warhorse" is such an overused word we think of the beast it denotes as more a tired nag than a spirited charger. But the Verdi Requiem remains a warhorse indeed; however often it's brought out, it retains its fire, flares its nostrils, strikes sparks from the cobblestones and gallops itself, as often as not, into a lather.

On Sunday at the Kennedy Center, it was the Washington Chorus's turn to take the ride. And while Julian Wachner, the conductor, led with spirit, he also tamed the music to such an extent that it was an unusually urbane trip.

The chorus is sounding excellent: balanced and careful and clear. And Wachner did beautifully detailed work with the singers, carrying them through every word, focusing on them with laser intensity. He was less focused on the orchestra, which he put through its paces with ease and a hint of insouciance.

To his credit, he also resisted the obvious; his focus seemed to be on the less showy pieces and the chorus, rather than the big solo moments. The "Sanctus," a rapid fugue, was especially vivid and fine; while the "Dies Irae," though properly thunderous -- trumpets in the balconies and all -- could have gone up one more notch in intensity. Wachner may have done that on purpose, waiting for the reiteration in the final "Libera Me," when all the stops were finally pulled out.

Verdi voices are a rarer breed than ever, but the chorus marshaled a quartet that could at least get the job done. Wayne Tigges, the bass, had beautiful melodious low notes, though he got a little nasal when applying pressure to higher registers in, for instance, the "Confutatis." Arnold Rawls, the tenor, offered a lot of commitment and a workable voice. The weak link was the mezzo-soprano, Susana Poretsky, who sounded like a caricature of an opera singer: the voice artificial and hooty, the pitches erratic.

And the very strong link was the soprano Jennifer Check. I've heard Check a number of times in the past -- an alumna of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann young-artist program, she already has an active career around the United States -- and I was pleased with her here all over again. What's so wonderful about her singing is its freshness; she has a sizable voice, but she doesn't push it or try to make it sound like anything but herself. It's not exactly a Verdian voice -- which one thinks of as a richer, thicker sound -- but it's big enough to sing Verdi, and it has technique to burn. From shining, floating top notes, Check dug down into rich chest tones with abandon for the final words, "Libera me." You couldn't have asked for a better conclusion.

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