Wilkins leads Boston Landmarks Orchestra in a sweeping and intense Verdi Requiem

August 2, 2018 at 12:38 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem was performed by conductor Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra Wednesday night.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem was performed by conductor Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra Wednesday night.

In May of 1873, Giuseppe Verdi suffered a profound loss. The novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, whose work Verdi admired, died after a long bout with meningitis, and the composer was too overcome with grief to attend the funeral.

Over the following year, Verdi found solace in music, and he poured his emotions into the Requiem, composed in honor of Manzoni and premiered in Milan on the first anniversary of the author’s death. As an agnostic, Verdi found it difficult to look into the eternity articulated by the text of the Latin funeral mass. His vision of death and the afterlife was far less certain, and the Requiem instead stands as a personal reflection upon the soul’s eternal struggle for salvation. 

But Verdi’s Requiem still has the power to soothe in times of sorrow. Wednesday night at the DCR Hatch Shell, Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra performed the rich and emotionally charged score as a tribute to the life of Robert Honeysucker, the beloved Boston baritone who died last October.

The Requiem is one of the finest choral compositions to come out of the nineteenth century. It contains some of Verdi’s most lyrical writing, but the choruses and solo passages are arranged in dramatic scenes that have the emotional immediacy of “Va, pensiero” or the personal tragedy of La Traviata. Even Hans von Bülow stated that the Requiem was “opera in ecclesiastical garb.”

That is how Wilkins views the score, and his direction of the Landmarks Orchestra, guest chorus, and soloists Wednesday night resulted in a sweeping performance. Brisk tempos brought robust intensity to even the softest sections of the work, and the conductor’s sudden lunges drew out fierce accents and forte passages.

The chorus, consisting of singers from the Back Bay Chorale and One City Choir, sang Verdi’s fugues and double choruses with precision and smooth tone. Conductor Scott Allen Jarrett, who prepared the Back Bay Chorale for this performance, was on hand to help conduct the large forces that were set up in front of the Hatch Shell stage. Leading the large group of singers situated down front, Jarrett followed Wilkins’ every move and conjured colorful singing that was always in sync with the orchestra and soloists onstage. The opening “Requiem eternam” moved with hushed energy, while the “Dies Irae” sounded with earth-shaking power. 

The Landmarks Orchestra supported the chorus with bold and committed playing that delved into the darkness and hellfire of Verdi’s score. The orchestra’s seven trumpet players—three of whom were arrayed on the sides of the lawn—performed the fanfare that opens the “Tuba mirum” with gleaming tone and crisp articulation. The strings played the Requiem’s primordial opening with soft radiance, and the woodwinds delivered brief moments of repose in the “Domine Jesu Christe.”

Photo: Boston Landmarks Orchestra

Photo: Boston Landmarks Orchestra

Joining the chorus and orchestra was a superb cast of soloists.

With warm, buttery tone, tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan sang the “Ingemisco” with grand vocal presence, his high notes ringing like a bell. Bass-baritone Nathan Stark rendered the “Confutatis maledictis” with a cavernous voice. Ann McMahon Quintero’s dark, chocolaty voice complemented Manucharyan and Stark in “Lux aeterna,” and her featured solo in “Recordare” conveyed poignant Verdian lyricism.

In “Hostias,” Meredith Hansen’s soprano soared over the other singers’ plush harmonies. But her finest singing came in the “Libera ma” at Requiem’s end, where she intoned a nervous chant that was answered by the chorus. The text for Verdi’s unsettling ending tells of a soul pleading with God to be saved from eternal damnation. After Hansen muttered her final line as if in prayer, the music ended in quiet desperation. For Verdi, death was less an opening into a vivid heaven than a doorway into the unknown.

To open the concert in a contrasted way, Wilkins led a colorful account of Rossini’s overture to Semiramide. Leading with waving gestures, the conductor built the opening statements into a powerful crescendo. French horns lofted warm phrases to follow, and in the quick sections, the strings and woodwinds supplied buoyant melodies to make this this witty overture a delightful and lighthearted introduction to the drama to come.

Ronald Feldman will lead the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in music by Williams, Ravel, Bizet, and Vaughan Williams 7 p.m. August 8 at the DCR Hatch Shell. landmarksorchestra.org

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