All music students should be required to learn and perform a gigantic choral masterpiece such as Verdi's Requiem. It is a varied, instructive and vastly complicated task, like building a house or putting out a newspaper. There is something for everybody to do -- whether singing in the chorus, playing in the strings or whacking the gigantic bass drum in the "Dies Irae" -- and the sense of working together as a team is a marvelous and restorative complement to the long hours of solitude necessary to master one's own instrument.
On Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Center, James Ross conducted the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Choirs in a stirring rendition of Verdi's grandest non-operatic work. What set this performance apart, aside from the unusual skill and dedication of the young musicians, was the stellar group of soloists imported for the occasion: soprano Sharon Sweet, mezzo-soprano Michelle T. Rice, tenor Benjamin Warschawski and bass James Morris, established artists who have graced opera stages throughout the world, yet found their way to College Park to work with the next generation.
Although Verdi was not a believer, in any traditional understanding of the word, he knew and empathized with the human need for commemoration of the dead, and he created the Requiem in 1874 in honor of the Italian author Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi was also a man of the theater to the depths of his being, and he stressed just those elements in the Catholic funeral rites that would provide his audience some of the same thrills and chills they found in his operas. If Berlioz, in his own Requiem, invites us to contemplate the strangeness of our temporal lives, and Brahms gives us a musical space in which to grieve in somber dignity, Verdi does his best to scare us silly, with the most vividly rendered "Day of Wrath" in the repertory, all buzzing fury and blaring trumpets.
Ross led the Requiem with intelligence and drive, finding new reserves of drama and surprise on every page. His forces were uneven, an inevitable fact of life with any nonprofessional ensemble, but he generally managed to keep a balance and rarely let the orchestra overpower the soloists. The grandest climaxes -- some of the loudest unamplified music ever written -- were appropriately shattering; at such moments, one had the sense that the players and singers were giving their all and then some.
Rice stepped in for an indisposed Delores Ziegler at the last minute, singing credibly and fervently, in true Verdian style, as though she'd just stepped out of "Aida." Sweet was at her strongest in the final movement, a "Libera Me" that moves from chant to full-fledged operatic declamation and then back to chant. Warschawski held his own with a dapper, impassioned rendition of the tenor part, while Morris reconfirmed his stature as one of the supreme singing actors of our time. The trembling manner in which Morris half-sang, half-spoke the phrase "Mors stupebit et natura" -- "Death and nature shall stand amazed" -- deserves an article in itself: He no longer seemed a smooth professional fulfilling a gig but one more frightened penitent, staring into the face of mystery.