There was a special thrill Sunday in Walt Disney Concert Hall as 120 or so voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a resounding orchestra and trumpets seemingly all over the place summoned the dead to the Day of Judgment in Verdi's mighty Requiem.
But the finely honed and focused chorale was also capable of dynamics at the other end of the scale, sounding like wispy, ghostly voices of the dead in the half-breathed opening, beseeching for rest. In fact, the group's most touching singing occurred in the quiet Agnus Dei, as Grant Gershon led an intelligent, expansive and flexible account of Verdi's complex, challenging work.
The composer dedicated the Requiem to the memory of the great 19th century poet, novelist and political leader Alessandro Manzoni, who was Verdi's and all Italy's hero. It's doubtful that Verdi believed in the dogmas of Roman Catholicism, but he revered Manzoni and poured his heart and skill into this work.
Recently, there have been efforts to back off from the tradition of performing it as a kind of disguised opera, but this approach only diminishes its power. For the key to the Requiem lies in the soloists' moving beyond being merely "the soprano," "the tenor" and so forth to become full-fledged characters, people fearful of death and what it means. Stand-ins, in short, for all of us. The chorus then amplifies these personal feelings.
Of the four powerhouse soloists, tenor Stuart Neill, the only one to sing without a score, came closest to this ideal of personal, characterful expression. If his Italianate, heroic, Radames-sized voice energized his solo colleagues, he also occasionally overpowered them too.
But he appropriately scaled back his sound for the sweet Ingemisco and the start of the Hostias, which contain those moments when Verdi, like Mozart, seemed to reach up to the heavens to pull down a glorious melody.
Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, a coolish, dark-toned soprano in the "Forza" mode, kept her resources and her individuality in reserve until the closing measures of the final Libera Me, when the soloist is made almost to subside to mumbling chanting from terror at the thought of impending, eternal death.
Mezzo-soprano Eugenie Grunewald brought a rich top and sonorous chest tones to her demanding duties. She was often alert to the drama of the text but somehow fell short of making it credible.
Bass Eric Owens had an ample but grainy voice and came personally alive only toward the end of the Offertorio, in the lines recalling God's promise of eternal life to Abraham and his descendants.
Quibbles would include too many moments when the chorus peaked early so that the dynamics had nowhere else to go, thus throwing off the design and shape of a section. But the double fugue in the Sanctus was splendidly executed.
Special mention should also go to the sonorous brass section of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Orchestra, which filled Disney with glorious sound.
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 tonight
Price: $19 to $79
Contact: (800) 787-5262 or www.lamc.org