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Divine Fire

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/13/2011 -  
Hector Berlioz: Requiem, Opus 5

Thomas Cooley (Tenor)
Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus, National High School Festival Chorus, The Concorde (Pennsylvania), Vocal Ensemble of the York County Section Honors Choir, Bandy Voder (Director), Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School (North Carolina), Katy Clark (Executive Director), Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, Norman Mackenzie (Chorus Director), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Spano (Conductor)

R. Spano (© Andrew Eccles)

The first relatively spring-style Sunday in New York, after an agonizing winter, would hardly be enticing enough to hear a Requiem Mass. But Hector Berlioz’ Requiem is anything but a gloomy, moribund death service. Berlioz cared nothing for the Church, he needed the money badly, and – best of all – this was the opportunity to let his inexhaustible imagination soar to the sky without any regard for costs, size of orchestra or even religious models. (The French Government picked up the tab.)

St. Luke’s splendid orchestra may not have had all 16 trombones, 12 horns and 12 trumpets. But the orchestra – including choirs of brass in four different spots up on the balconies – were sumptuous. The choruses could have well have performed Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand for an encore, and the acoustics of Carnegie Hall did resound and vibrate. If the ceiling wasn’t going to collapse with good vibes, the stage might collapse with the weight.

Berlioz’s ensemble was probably not the largest of the 19th Century, since many an American composition of that time was filled brass sections of the 100’s, and choruses quintupled that size. But that music, mainly patriotic in nature, was simply a thesaurus of tonic-dominant platitudes. This Requiem broke all the rules.

Ideally, a grand cathedral, like St. John’s, should be the venue for this Requiem. But this was a very special grout of choral ensembles. Beginning 21 years ago, the Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop has brought the finest high school choirs from across the country, where they can watch and participate in the rehearsals of the work, and learn from both mentors and comrades. The result was four different choruses, behind the massive orchestra. And the result was – inevitably – a monumental sound.

Except for one caveat. While we all revere and are carried away from the great ensemble choruses, while we can revel in the Hosanna in excelsis from the Sanctus, or the angelic ethereal “Amen” from the Offertorium, or the ultimate Day of Fire, Day of Wrath (it makes Verdi’s Dies Irae sound like a penny-whistle serenade!) this performance uncovered something entirely new.

And this was the overwhelmingly medieval, 14th Century sounds which Berlioz produced. More than the ensemble choruses, Berlioz wrote two-voiced lines which could have been old organum church music. That is, the bass or tenors would sing one line, while sopranos/altos would almost chant an ostinato above. Two other “melodies”, not significant on their own, would blend for a virtually spectral sound, one that, in a cathedral, would drift through the congregation and soar into the ceiling.

Berlioz was perhaps the first “spatial” composer. His arrangement of the Tuba mirum with the four orchestras, followed perfectly by conductor Spano, or the separation of the kettledrums on each side of the stage, or even the constant mating of flutes with bass trombones, gave that space so necessary for the Requiem to have its full effect. But those remote, sometimes bitonal melodies which were most intriguing.

One listener asked afterwards how Mr. Spano achieved his huge effects with the minimum of arm movement. Two factors played here. One is that I have always admired Mr. Spano’s skill, from his Glass offerings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to his work in Atlanta. But the second is that Hector Berlioz knew exactly what he wanted. One need only follow the score, no matter how eccentric it looks, and the effect is inevitable.

Berlioz always felt that by not playing piano (only flute and guitar), he could free himself to concentrate on orchestral sounds of the imagination, not their keyboard simulation.

And this is how four different choirs, two of them from high schools in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, could blend so effortlessly to achieve their goals. Perhaps in Tanglewood this summer, James Levine will find another sound, perhaps a more perfect sound. For myself, the aural wonders of Berlioz showed so gloriously that I became a believer myself.

A believer in music, in Berlioz, in art and in the invisible spirits which kindle such divine fire.

Harry Rolnick



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