Faith didn't come easily, if at all, to Giuseppe Verdi. He saw too many failings in humankind to believe much in divine goodness, let alone an afterlife.
But when confronted with the death of poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, someone he idolized, Verdi turned to the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead to express his feelings.
In his Requiem, the composer spoke for believers and nonbelievers alike about the fear of death and the nature of supplication.
Understandably, coming from Italy's greatest creator of operas, Verdi's Requiem owes as much to the theater as to liturgical idioms. These aren't just dusty prayers being intoned, but a life-and-death drama that, without costumes or scenic diversion, can have an immense, operatic-sized impact on the listener -- at least when presented as stunningly as it was Friday night by the Kirov Opera's orchestra and chorus at the Kennedy Center.
Tightly packed onto the edge of the Opera House stage, the performers produced a level of expressive heat that was as much a tribute to the depth of Verdi's genius as to the extraordinary caliber the Kirov company can summon for its general director and conductor Valery Gergiev.
Standing on the stage floor, rather than on a podium, Ger- giev seemed to be deep inside the Requiem. He had the first notes of the score emerging as if from the "other side," barely audible, barely stirring. I've never heard the piece start so arrestingly, and the hypnotic effect never flagged for the remaining 90 minutes or so. Whether in the cataclysmic eruptions of the Dies Irae, the momentarily reassuring lift of the Sanctus or the solemnity of the Agnus Dei, the conductor's insightful guidance paid dividends.
Even allowing for a slip or two of focus, the chorus and orchestra made stellar efforts.
Olga Kondina's radiant soprano was a shade too light for the most emphatic passages, but still proved a blessing (a single unsteady note only added to the humanness of her singing). Ekaterina Semenchuk produced sumptuous mezzo tones and emotionally rich phrases. Daniil Shtoda's ardent tenor and Ildar Abdrazakov's ripe bass were assets, too.
This Mass for the Dead couldn't have sounded much more alive.
After the large-scale and weighty issues of Verdi's Requiem, William Kanengiser's recital for the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society provided a welcome balance Saturday night.
A member of the popular Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Kanengiser affirmed his credentials as a soloist in an imaginative program at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The intimacy of the classical guitar forces the ear to listen differently -- and harder. The experience is akin to eavesdropping. Within the limits of volume, though, the range of expression is enormous, for composers as well as guitarists.
To begin, Kanengiser highlighted three contemporaries of Beethoven who helped develop the instrument's potential. He articulated Fernando Sor's Elegiac Fantasy with particular sensitivity and neatly caught the rhythmic snap of a Fandango by Dionysio Aguado. There were some blurry moments in an arrangement of Rossini opera excerpts by Mauro Giuliani, but the spirit, especially in the trademark Rossini crescendos, came through vividly.
Contemporary pieces filled the second half. Brian Head's Sketches for Friends had the guitarist doing animated country and jazz riffs. And in Carlo Domeniconi's fascinating, Turkish-flavored Koyunbaba, which uses nonstandard tuning, Kanengiser captured the exotic atmosphere in subtly virtuosic fashion.
Vienna Piano Trio
Choosing works written in its namesake city, the Vienna Piano Trio offered chamber music-making on a superior scale Sunday night in an appearance for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
With remarkable clarity of articulation and a gently lyrical (sometimes elfin) touch, the players created aural magic out of Mozart's B-flat major Trio, K. 502.
If cellist Matthias Gredler was a little underpowered and, at one point, smudgy in Schubert's E-flat major Trio, he matched violinist Wolfgang Redik and pianist Stefan Mendl for eloquent phrasing.
The musicians were inspired at exploiting dynamic contrasts and tapping into the melancholy streak that runs through the music.
Schoenberg's gauzy, ultra-romantic Transfigured Night was written for, and probably best suited to, string ensemble. But the score works surprisingly well arranged for a piano trio, becoming a new, bolder composition in the process, and it was performed in compelling style.