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Verdi's Requiem Soars into Houston

Jones Hall
03/20/2015 -  & Marcg 22, 23*, 2015
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Amber Wagner (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Francesco Demuro (tenor), Alfred Walker (bass-baritone)
Houston Symphony and Chorus, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor)

S. Cooke (© Dario Acosta)

A potent, red-blooded account of Verdi's monumental Requiem is further evidence that Andrés Orozco-Estrada's inaugural season as music director promises great things in the future. Betsy Cook Weber, the Houston Symphony Chorus's new director, has sharpened and deepened the choir's overall sound, encapsulating the majesty and mystery of this epic work.

Orozco-Estrada's pacing was urgent overall, but the piece never felt rushed or hectic. He has renewed the orchestra's agility and accuracy, on fine display from the most lontano whispers to the loudest tutti passages. The strings and chorus started the work with stunningly ethereal tones. Throughout, orchestra and chorus provided utmost contract, bringing out ample venom and soothing it with sweet soft playing. In the epic Dies Irae sequence, bold brass fanfares were thrillingly juxtaposed with lithe woodwind solos. Rian Craypo was especially fine in her bassoon obligato in the "Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?" section and her three colleagues joined here in an expert account of their crepuscular quartet in the "Libera me."

Casting four soloists that can both handle Verdi's demands and blend into a satisfying quartet is always a challenge, and proved problematic here. Sasha Cooke was easily the standout. Gorgeous tone, excellent musicality, ample power to carry over the full orchestra and tasteful moments of blending into the background made her singing memorable. Amber Wagner, too, was impressive, even if she had a few slightly chipped entries; it sounded as if she were a bit under the weather.

While Alfred Walker produced a solid bass-baritone sound, his singing was a bit one-note and lacked the nuances of Cooke's. Francesco Demuro was the least successful of the quartet. While he has plenty of power, he only rationed it once, during his duet with principal oboist Jonathan Fischer ("Inter oves locum præsta..."). The fact that he could sing with such suppleness there, but failed to balance properly with Cooke in the "Lux æterna," for instance, was off-putting.

The unevenness of the soloists aside, this was a thrilling rendition of a piece that can, at times, come across as gaudy and overly-dramatized. With impeccable choral singing, powerfully sculpted orchestral contributions and an urgent but not rushed stance from Orozco-Estrada, this performance shows that the Houston Symphony and Chorus are in excellent hands.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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