By Sarah Downs
Requiem performed by the musicAeterna orchestra and choir at the SHED is the kind of musical experience I live for. It left me breathless and on the verge of tears.
Guiseppe Verdi composed this masterpiece, a musical setting of the Catholic funeral mass, in 1874. It is a magnificent work which musicAeterna gives its full due and more. Conductor Teodor Currentzis has gathered top performers who play seamlessly together, with extraordinary skill. At the outset, in the hushed, almost inhuman pianissimo of the first notes, the instrumentalists maintain a perfect tension almost to a point of no return. You feel the music rather than hear it. Currentzis conducts with such connection it’s as if the music emanates from the tips of his fingers. Watching the orchestra perform is a similarly immersive experience. Freed from physical constriction in long, loose, black robes that unify the stage visual, keeping audience focus on the singers and instrumentalist, the orchestra plays with a vigor that brings the text alive. Most of them stand for the entire 90-minute piece, with the exception of instruments that demand one sit down, like the cello. On their feet the instrumentalists, like the singers, can root themselves deeply into the ground. So anchored, they are liberated to play freely. This is why singers prefer to sing standing up. We need to feel our strength and connection, allowing the music to flow through us on our breath.
All of the performers epitomize the concept of singing from the toes up, including the four outstanding soloists. Tenor René Barbera possesses both strength and sweetness in his voice. His “Ingemisco” gave me goosebumps. Clémentine Margaine‘s voice rings with dignity and elegance throughout her range from rich contralto to high mezzo. Soprano Zarina Abaeva has some of the most difficult singing, in that she spends much of her time singing very softly in the challenging transition point in vocal registers known as the passaggio. She negotiates that technical feat well, and when she lets the dogs out, as it were, especially during the dramatic final “Libera Me” where she stands front and center of the chorus, her beautiful voice hits the back of the house. Evgeny Stavinsky‘s sonorous bass rings with that wonderful, masculine sound that grounds the overtones yet makes its uniquely rumbly presence known.
One of the toughest jobs in music is to sing as one in a choir. The individual voice is celebrated, but in its contribution to the whole. The musicAeterna Choir is flawless. It’s dynamic range and breath control are phenomenal.
I have to give a big shout-out to the sound designer, whose careful placement of a minimal number of microphones — necessitated by the resonance-sucking nature of the cavernous space — works maximum effect with the least intervention. None of the performance felt miked, which means he captured the truth of the sound rather than embellish or distort it. Would that every performer could have such a skilled designer!
In contrast to the visionary approach to Verdi’s music by Currentzis and his musicians, the accompanying film by Jonas Mekas did nothing for me other than annoy me. In a style that was Avant Garde in maybe the 1960’s, the film is a long series of short video clips of flowers, rain, the occasional sheep and a corpse or two. I don’t know if the point was to dumb down the music so we’d all Get The Message that this is Big Stuff, but the film was irrelevant. I mean, come on. A Requiem is about the totality of human experience, the totality of suffering, the totality of beauty. It is about the eternity of death and rapture of ascension. To attempt to match that with mundane images of reality and manipulative photos of dead babies trivializes rather than enhances the experience.
This is storytelling of the highest order. As the final chord echoed through the hall, as Currentzis held us all under his spell during the ensuing silence, I found myself literally holding my breath, on the edge of my seat, with my head in my hands. I don’t know what else to say.
Requiem, at the Shed (545 West 30th St.) November 19th – 24th. For tickets go to: www.theshed.org. The run is sold out, but you never know. Someone might have a last minute cancellation.