Music director Maurice Allard decided to wait for eight years before venturing to lead his 115-member Master Chorale of Orange County in Verdi's monumental Requiem Mass. But now he feels "ready" and will conduct the work Sunday at 3 p.m. in Santa Ana High School Auditorium.
"When I took over the chorale eight years ago, the singers were vocally and musically not in a position to do 19th-Century works--i.e., Verdi--as well as I would have liked," Allard said in a recent telephone interview.
"So we sang Bach, Handel and other Baroque music to develop the music skills and vocal discipline which are the basis of great choral singing. Now the chorale has reached the maturity to do a good job with it."
Verdi's Requiem is one of the comparatively few works the composer wrote that were not operas. But the work thoroughly reflects his unparalleled command of dramatic composition.
Verdi wrote the Requiem to commemorate the death of Alessandro Manzoni, the great Italian poet and the greatest literary figure in the history of Milan.
So venerated was Manzoni in his native city that his death in 1873 brought Milan to a standstill. Shops closed, tradesmen hung memorial odes to the 89-year-old poet in their windows and grieving people lined the streets from the town hall, where his body lay in state, to the cemetery.
Verdi, who idolized Manzoni, was too moved to attend the funeral and visited the grave alone a week later.
He proposed to write a Requiem Mass to honor the poet on the first anniversary of his death--and one year to the day, on May 22, 1874, Verdi conducted the premiere of the work to an overflow audience at the Church of San Marco in Milan. Three days later he repeated the performance at La Scala and soon launched the work in Paris--and immediate international renown.
"In the Requiem, all the stops are pulled," Allard said. "Emotionally, it demands the ultimate.
"The vocal demands are very operatic for a chorale. The range is extreme, with sopranos singing high Bs and the basses singing low Es. And there is sustained, loud singing at times.
"I stop rehearsals very frequently to refocus the voices in order to minimize stress and strain and give them exercises to allow them to sing in an operatic style. That's an untraditional approach, but it builds stamina, range and color."
No less demanding are the vocal parts of the four soloists, who are required to sing dramatic, almost-operatic roles. (The four soloists on Sunday will be soprano Deborah Voight, mezzo-soprano Alice Baker, tenor Jonathon Welch and bass Kenneth Cox.)
"Each soloist that we've hired is basically an opera singer and is known in opera circles," Allard said.
"The soprano has the leading role of the four. She has numerous high B-flats and Cs that are sustained for measures. That just takes a lot of stamina.
"And in the last movement, which features the last cry for salvation from eternal damnation, she's got to be emotionally free enough to get across that moment of drama in her life.
"That kind of emotional freedom is exceptional and very demanding."
In addition to the vocal difficulties, Verdi's writing for orchestra presents its own unique demands, ranging from a quiet, ecclesiastical style to earth-shaking drama as he represents the terrifying Dies Irae-- the Day of Wrath--drawing on off-stage trumpets sounding the Tuba Mirum , or the Last Judgment.
At the premiere, Verdi used 100 musicians in his orchestra and 120 singers, and most later performances attempt to match these large-scale forces. Although the size of Allard's chorale will be comparable, he will conduct only a 50-piece orchestra.
"It's a matter of budget," Allard said. "Also, the balance in the inferior halls we have is always so tough when the chorus is upstage. So a smaller orchestra will not overwhelm them. There will be four off-stage trumpets as well as four on-stage.
"I think it will come off great."
Verdi's dramatic approach to the text--especially the emphasis on the Day of Judgment and his deliberate omission of any final sunny vision--makes the work liturgically unsuitable as a consolation to the living for the loss of a loved one or as an orthodox expression of prayer by the living for the peace of the dead. But a musical audience need not deal with these issues of dogma.
"People will pick up the theatrical essence of the Requiem," Allard said. "And people who love 19th-Century opera will love this work because Verdi was literally the greatest opera composer of the 19th Century.
"Verdi did not believe in God. And yet the two men he admired most, Rossini and Manzoni, were very spiritual men. I find that so fascinating. But then we're full of contradictions, aren't we?"