Orchestra tackling Verdi's 'Requiem'


Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest opera composer of them all, hated to receive unsolicited librettos.

"It is impossible, or almost impossible, for someone else to divine what I want," he said.

But Roman Catholicism's liturgy for the dead - the Requiem Mass - was another story.

When Verdi took that text -with its evocations of holy light, hellfire, the agonized groans of the damned, the blaring trumpets of the Day of Judgement - and set it to music, he created the most electrifying work of the choral canon.

It is this great Verdi Requiem that conductor Leslie B. Dunner, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and the 91 singers of Washington's Heritage Signature Chorale will perform tomorrow and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

"It's truly a massive piece," Dunner says, "and it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable doing it. I actually turned it down twice because I didn't feel I was ready for it.

"Now, with this orchestra and this choir, I feel ready to give the creditable concert hall performance I've always wanted to conduct."

Verdi's Requiem, like Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Bach's B-minor Mass, is devilishly difficult to bring off in concert. Verdi viewed the liturgy for the dead in the same manner he viewed everything else, as a potential libretto for grand opera. And with the drama of the Mass conveyed so passionately, his demands are extraordinary.

Verdi calls for tremendous extremes of sound, from triple pianissimos to the most thunderous fortissimos imaginable. When the bass drum pounds in the "Dies Irae" sequence, there is no mistaking its profound and ominous message for humanity.

As always, Verdi's complicated choral harmonies are bunched so tightly that they are bears to keep in tune.

And in the solos, only the operatically strong survive.

This weekend, the soaring, oh-so-treacherous soprano lines will be sung by Susan Van Kley.

Mezzo-soprano Judith Engel and bass Les Young also will contribute, as will tenor Jon Garrison.

The Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi will be performed at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Tickets cost $32, $30 and $23; or $7 for students. Reservations: 410- 263-0907.

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