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Students and soloists bring Requiem to life

MIT Concert Choir and MIT Symphony Orchestra.

Messa de Requiem, by Giuseppe Verdi.

Dominique Labelle, soprano; Mary Westbrook-Geha, mezzo-soprano; Mark Evans, tenor; Mark Aliapoulios, baritone.

Kresge Auditorium.

April 22, 1993.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

John Oliver and his MIT Concert Choir returned to Kresge Auditorium on Friday night, April 22. They were joined by the MIT Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem (1873). Also under the direction of Mr. Oliver were soprano Dominique Labelle, mezzo-soprano Mary Westbrook-Geha, tenor Mark Evans, and baritone Mark Aliapoulios. The MIT musicians and their team of esteemed soloists afforded the capacity audience a nicely shaped rendering of Verdi's masterpiece with an appropriate balance of broadness of conception and dramatic incisiveness. Aside from moments of insecurity from the orchestra, the performance as a whole was musically satisfying and surely one of the most sonically dazzling to grace Kresge's somewhat dry acoustic.

Verdi's first notions for aRequiemmass began as a tribute to the memory of another well-known Italian composer, Gioacchino Rossini, in 1868. Verdi had planned that each of the movements of theRequiemfor Rossini would be composed by twelve different composers (mildly akin to modern-day collaborative efforts like Farm-Aid and We Are the World). The intended performance never took place, and several years passed before Verdi actually decided to complete aRequiemon his own -- this time in memory of the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni.

Probably the most famous piece of criticism leveled against Verdi's work is an invective written by the famous German conductor Hans von Blow. Blow referred to Verdi as an "Attila of the larynx" who hoped "to eliminate the last remains, irksome to his own ambition, of Rossini's immortality." Blow's diatribe was so potent that Johannes Brahms later examined Verdi's score for himself and commented that "Blow has blundered, since this could be done only by a genius."

Considering the Requiem's length and its dramatic scale, the MIT music community is fortunate to have a person of John Oliver's talent and resources. As with his many BSO performances, Oliver draws a strong, solid sound from the chorus. Oliver's tempos were quite conventional and did not show any self-conscious signs of "going easy" on an amateur student chorus by slowing down. The first major nail-biting episode for the chorus is the unaccompanied, twenty-eight bar Te decet hymnus at the Requiem's outset. The chorus proved its strength, staying in tune and nicely focused. Led by the soprano, the chorus again absolved itself in another unaccompanied thirty-nine bar section at the tail end of the Libra me. For a chorus of its gargantuan proportions, the MIT Concert Choir achieved an impressive level of tonal homogeneity.

The highlight of the Requiem is the Dies ir, in which the choral sound (helped by an augmented brass section) was absolutely thrilling. In spite of a couple stutter-starts from the basses, only in the faster sections (like the scherzo-ish, eight-part Sanctus double fugue) can one really distinguish any minor weaknesses or unevenness in execution from the chorus as a whole.

Besides inspiring choral writing, Verdi's "opera set to sacred text" contains some of the most beautiful lines for solo vocalists in the European ecclesiastical music literature. Considering the Requiem's proximity to Aida, Verdi affords ample occasions for each of the four soloists to gleam. My favorite part is the Lacrymosa where the mezzo-soprano is joined, one by one, by the other soloists and eventually the chorus. The duets sung by Labelle and Westbrook-Geha were especially beautiful, as in the ravishing Recordare and Agnus Dei.

The tenor and baritone also enjoyed moments in the limelight. Although Evans entered with an overly bellowy "Kyrie eleison," his sensitive rendition of the Ingemisco was fully satisfying, effortlessly soaring with particularly engaging oboe and flute lines. Although Aliapoulios was also technically secure, he is listed as a baritone where the score calls for a bass. Perhaps his somewhat gentile tone was just not menacing enough, especially in parts like Confutatis and the hushed anxiety of Tube mirum. Subjective tastes aside, it is difficult to fault the soloists. The blending of the four voices was quite successful, producing a genuine vocal quartet.

The instrumental portion of the performance was not quite as successful as the vocal contribution. First things first, to be fair, the MIT Symphony Orchestra has markedly improved from the lackluster Dvork last semester. The woodwinds have consistently delivered in their performances and were featured prominently again in the Requiem. Despite small intonation errors, their tone as an ensemble remained steady. I was especially amused by the short bassoon quartet in the Libera me, headed by the excellent principal bassoonist. Sitting at the back of the hall, away from my usual front-row seat, I found the string tone to be less aggressive than I remembered from previous occasions. I will indulge my penchant for pickiness momentarily and mention that the violins noticeably lost intonation during the "voca me cum benedictis" section of the Confutatis. Furthermore, the evening's most painful moment came during the Offertorio. Although Verdi wrote a single melodic line for the cellos, the audience was hammered by a virtual chorus of approximations. Of all the technical challenges during the performance, this was the most unforgivable; I can only imagine Westbrook-Geha and Evans' mental fortitude in trying to stay in tune themselves during this section.

The Symphony deserves some measure of credit for its accomplishments. John Oliver's conception and the sheer magnitude of the Requiem was certainly conveyed in the performance. The achievements of the MIT Concert Choir continue to grow each semester. After performing an 18th century masterpiece like the Bach B minor Mass and a 19th century work like the Verdi Requiem, one can only extrapolate that a 20th century composition is slated for the fall. Be it Carl Orff's Carmina Burana or something else, the chorus is sure to provide an interesting musical experience. And maybe next time, Kresge's ushers will do their job and keep the auditorium doors from slamming shut during the show.