Conducting in the Washington National Cathedral is a little like conducting in the Grand Canyon -- the setting is spectacular, the acoustics are problematic. J. Reilly Lewis, the music director of the Cathedral Choral Society, knows this sonic ambiance as well as anybody, and it was both instructive and inspirational to watch him lead a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem there on Sunday afternoon.
Instructive -- in that he made clear choices when to work with the acoustics of the cathedral (permitting only crisp, staccato intonation from his massed voices) and when to simply let the music roar, creating an indistinct but magnificent muddle in what quickly became a vast echo chamber. And inspirational -- in that Lewis managed to fashion such a powerful performance despite all the challenges. In short, this was an interpretation both respectful of the cathedral's snares and worthy of its grandeur.
Verdi was not a religionist in any traditional sense of the word, and so it is not surprising that his Requiem is among the least consoling such works in the repertory. Indeed, one of the things that make the Verdi Requiem compelling is its underlying anxiety, not only in the cataclysmic "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") but throughout. Mozart, Beethoven and even Berlioz take divine salvation as . . . well, if not a given, then at least a strong likelihood. But Verdi's contribution to the genre has no such surety. It is frightening music that makes the mysteries of death very real, assumes the possibility of horrors to come in an afterlife, and continues to plead for mercy even as it flickers away, offering no reassuring "happy ending" to take home with us.
The Latin poet Horace suggested that if an author wanted to make a reader cry it was first necessary to cry himself. Lewis wisely disregarded the ramifications of such dubious wisdom. To the eye, his leadership was careful, practical and even somewhat reserved. Yet the sounding results were always dynamic and often thrilling: Verdi's Requiem is one of classical music's wildest rides, and Lewis and his 230-voice choir made the most of it.
The four soloists -- soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, tenor Jay Hunter Morris and bass Kurt Link -- proved thoughtful and impassioned musicians. Morris's voice has a bright, trumpetlike quality, while Link's tone was all dark velvet. I might have wished for more timbral contrast between Bishop and Goerke: At times they sounded like the aural equivalent of mirror images, which does not seem to me Verdi's intent. But they were such fine and sensitive artists, so deeply involved with the terror and drama of the proceedings, that it seems churlish to complain.
The cathedral was all but filled, and the capacity audience gave Lewis and his forces the ovation they deserved.