In the entertainment business, a tentpole is a blockbuster that is big enough to support all of the creative product that surrounds it. “Seinfeld” used to do that on Thursday nights for NBC, and one could argue that the Verdi Requiem was the tentpole for this Philharmonic season. It’s a big work by a brand name composer with an irresistable and universal program (nothing more fundamental than death, redemption and eternity, is there?). Because it’s by Verdi, drama comes as standard equipment.
But it’s also a complicated machine calling for four vocal soloists, double chorus and augmented orchestra. So, when the downbeat is given, the Requiem is about Judgment Day in more ways than one. Last evening’s Erie Philharmonic performance didn’t exactly reach heaven, but neither should it be consigned to musical hell.
That’s where most Phil performances with chorus have headed, but not last night. Fortified by the Grove City College Touring Choir, the Erie Philharmonic Chorus was strong and often precise (the double fugue of the Sanctus were wonderfully clear). Hats off to Jason Bishop (Erie) and Douglas Browne (Grove City).
The vocal soloists, resident artists from the Pittsburgh Opera were up and down all night. Mezzo Lindsay Ammann cracked her entrance note in the Liber scriptus then sang strongly the rest of the evening. She got better as the music got higher and louder. Liam Moran had the hangdog look of a younger, rangier Ringo Starr. His mournful face reflected the lamenting music Verdi gives the bass, which he dispatched in a soft-grained way. Because this is Verdi, the big moments are given to the tenor and soprano. Noel Baetge’s Ingemisco was sweet-toned and small-scaled. Soprano Danielle Pastin had a real sense of Verdi’s storm-and-truth style, and her Libera me was frequently touching if also a bit rough-and-ready.
Perhaps the Phil needed the risers for the chorus, but keeping the winds on floor level made them inaudible from my seat (Row T, center of the house). It’s a shame, because there is much characterful wind writing here. Big ups, though, to Daniel Meyer for stationing four trumpets in the balcony for a shivery Tuba mirum.
Meyer seemed at his best in the score’s reflective moments. The Kyrie was nicely shaped and the Offertorio was lovely, but why, oh why did it come after an intermission? The interval following the Dies Irae sequence completely destroyed the sense of passage from darkness to light, damnation to devotion, that Verdi surely intended. Meyer’s reading clocked in at a fairly brisk 65 minutes. Does the Philharmonic management really think that music lovers can’t sit that long for a work about eternity without a potty break?
Whoever programmed the intermission deserves a Day of Anger all his own.