Put pure and simple, the Verdi Requiem is the most electrifying piece in the entire choral canon.
And why shouldn't it be, for Giuseppe Verdi viewed the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead the same way he viewed everything else -- as a potential libretto for grand opera.
Composed in 1873 to commemorate the life of novelist Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi's friend and fellow Italian nationalist, the Requiem is, above all, a work of incredible extremes, moving from barely audible pianissimos to the most thunderous eruptions imaginable. When the bass drum is whacked in the "Dies Irae," even the most avowed atheist in the house might start twitching nervously in anticipation of the Day of Judgment.
"The piece has everything," says Frances Motyca Dawson, founding conductor of Columbia's Pro Cantare Chorus, who will be conducting the first Verdi Requiem in Pro Cantare's 23-year history Saturday at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia. "All the drama, all the intensity and all the beauty Verdi put into his operas are in the Requiem, as well."
Joining Dawson's 120 singers and orchestra of 50 for the 8 p.m. concert will be soprano April-Joy Gutierrez, mezzo soprano Marianna Busching, tenor Charles Reid and baritone Lester Lynch.
Verdi's most virtuosic solo writing goes to the soprano, so it will be interesting to hear Gutierrez, a young veteran of the New York City Opera, handle Verdi's taxing, stratospheric writing.
Why has Pro Cantare, which has traversed the Requiems of Brahms, Mozart, Faure, Durufle and Dvorak, taken so long to get to Verdi?
"I guess I was never particularly drawn to it in our early days," Dawson says. "It was there, but it wasn't something I aspired to do."
But a concert of opera excerpts last spring put a new slant on things.
"There was a lot of Verdi on that program," she recalls, "and it got a positive reaction from our audience and from the chorus. So the time is definitely right. We all feel drawn to it now, after our hands-on experience with Verdi."
This will be an intense challenge, for the artistic demands Verdi places on a chorus are extraordinary. There must be passion and theatricalization aplenty. Harmonies, as always in Verdi, are notched so tightly together, they're an absolute bear to keep in tune.
The Requiem is an episodic piece full of short interludes that can easily lose their sense of organic flow should the choir engage the "automatic pilot" and stop concentrating.
But no composer ever gave his singers more chances to connect with the liturgy and the listener.
"We're ready," Dawson says, contemplating the great "Tuba mirum" sequence in which Verdi has antiphonal trumpets ringing in the Day of Judgment. "The Rouse Theatre will come alive, and our sound will definitely fill the stage."
Tickets are $18 in advance, $16 for seniors and students. A $2 surcharge is collected for tickets purchased at the door. Information: 410-465-5744 or 410-799-9321.