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MUSIC REVIEW

Pacific Orchestra Applies Its Name to Requiem

May 31, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Messa da Requiem, Verdi's epic, unapologetically operatic mass for the dead, has little to say about the dying and everything to say about living.

Written for the concert hall by a nonbeliever and a powerful critic of society, it is as uncomfortable in a church as the composer was. It tells us nothing about our relationship with God and much about our relationships with each other.

Beloved as it is, the hint of anticlerical context in Verdi's Requiem has often made performers and audiences uneasy, never quite sure what this piece is all about. Yet the performance led by Carl St.Clair Wednesday night that concluded the Pacific Symphony Orchestra season worked hard to avoid controversy.

It was more like impersonal, wide-screen cinema than important, intimate operatic drama. It seemed happy to concern itself with glorious symphonic music, rather than with potentially upsetting its audience with real passion and suffering, let alone contending with such politically divisive issues of belief and nonbelief.

St.Clair's is a possible modern approach. Scholars who make Verdi their life's work now like to point out that the Requiem, which was written directly after "Aida," liberated the composer from the stage, allowing him to expand musical ideas without the constraints of drama.

But Segerstrom Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center physically lends itself to perhaps too genuine cinematic expectations. Not only does the interior look like a movie theater, but the audience was kept in the dark, eyes attending to the large stage and not to the text printed in the program book. The four soloists were placed far from the onlookers, behind the orchestra and in front of the large Pacific Chorale, where they sounded fine but communicated little.

The acoustics, too, had the familiar digital ring heard in movie theaters, which don't have the most lifelike sound systems but pump them to the harsh breaking point anyway. This was not a problem with the well-supported voices of the soloists or in the more chamber music-like passages of the orchestra.

But in the big moments, with chorus at full bore, orchestra blaring and, in the Dies Irae, off-stage trumpets adding surround-sound effects, spectacle overwhelmed music, and one began to expect Dolby and THX logos to start flashing over the exit signs.

*

St.Clair's reading is not unmusical. He rounds phrases well if somewhat generically. He is an appealingly feral presence on the podium, ready to leap with excitement when the score calls for some drama. He values clarity of line and texture. He kept the performance moving without ever seeming to push too hard.

And the approach just might have worked if there had been more communication with the musicians and more immediacy in the sound. One heard, instead, a big machine keeping itself together, as if an orchestra playing and chorus singing the right notes at the right time with pretty much the right inflections and dynamics would be enough to explain the music.

Equally a problem was that the soloists did not seem to be singing about anything. One heard in the voices of mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever, tenor Stephen O'Mara and bass Brian Matthews not texts expressed so much as the advise of vocal coaches.

These are decent Verdi voices that work hard to maintain the proper support at the proper moment, bland security taking the place of dynamic daring or drama. But, in fact, there is even danger in that, as when O'Mara had moments of insecurity and had nothing to fall back on.

Camillia Johnson did more. She is a promising dramatic soprano. She can soar, and she can sing with tenderness. She was responsible for what thrills the evening produced. But she, too, would not commit herself to the drama. She sang the final Libera Me beautifully and comfortably, no terror to resolve, as if there were nothing to worry about when the lights came up.

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