Nothing Dour About Thursday's Requiem

May 17, 2013

A dedicated following of Requiem-lovers, as well as those merely interested in classical music but likely enticed into attendance by the allure of a mythical work, filled the pews of downtown Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church to capacity on Thursday night. The several hundred in attendance turned out for the final concert of the 2012-13 season of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Arkansas Chamber Singers, in a performance of one of the most popular musical works of the contemporary imagination: Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, K. 626.

Mozart's Requiem at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

So when ASO Music Director Philip Mann introduced the work, he made quite sure that the event would be as dramatic as possible. In an uncommon move, he had printed in our programs English translations of the Latin and Greek Proprium of Catholic liturgy—or, the text of the Mass—because he wanted all to think of the work as, for the most part, in the tradition of opera, if not an opera itself. While Mozart may have been dying while writing it, his compositional powers were still in the height of youthful vigor. The drama and tragedy of the music was the product of a man absorbed in drama for the stage. Mann described it as “a young man’s Requiem” and “a Requiem that entertains.”

As the music began with the introduction—with soft counterpoint basso continuo against treble strings, with a gentle and melancholic (if at-times wobbly) bassoon solo—everyone in the audience immediately headed for their programs preparing to read along with the introduction of the voices. So I wasn’t sure if anyone was actually paying attention to the music in the first movement, which felt very dry, as the ensemble adjusted to the lack of reverberation in the hall. But just as everyone thought they had settled in, the ‘entertainment’ began in full force as Mr. Mann, in perfect form, gave a tempo to the ‘Kyrie’-fugue which prompted a visceral kind of intellectual stimulation and emotional response.

I became so lost in the celestial counterpoint that I was hit again—shockingly unprepared—by the opening of the ‘Dies Irae.’ In both movements, the choir was remarkable. There was not a missed consonant, and the Latin was as clear and clean as spoken English. The following ‘Tuba,’ with the austere and stoic opening, had the quality of the very best recordings, thanks to the talent of visiting bass-vocalist Benjamin Bloomfield and trombonist Michael Underwood. The hall was so dry, however, that it sometimes tended to suppress the wonderful balance and tradeoffs between the solo-vocalists, all of whom were superb.

‘Rex tremendae’ was indeed tremendae, with genuinely sorrowful pleadings of “salve me, fons pietatis” (“save me, source of mercy”), and the choir-sopranos tenderly performed the “voca me” section of the ‘Confutatis’ that was made famous by the film “Amadeus.” Things went on in similar fashion, with memorable moments such as the brass chorales in the 'Domine Jesu,' and the entire ‘Sanctus’ (and too bad that the ‘Sanctus’ with translation wasn’t printed in the program, as everyone was looking around bewildered as if they had no idea what was going on or where they were).

Fortunately, the germs of suspicion as to the authenticity of the final movements did not cast doubt on the beauty of their performance, where the soaring voices of the ‘Agnus Dei’ and recapitulation of the beginning thematic material in the ‘Communio’ brought the house to its feet. If anything, this final performance of the Intimate Neighborhood Concert Series left us wishing for more, as it brought us more than just intimacy, but quality music.