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Verdi, Requiem: Christine Brewer (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Frank Lopardo (tenor), Vitalij Kowaljow (bass), San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus, James Conlon, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 15.06.2006 (HS)

The cliché has it that the Verdi Requiem is actually an opera in all but name. And indeed, it has a dramatic flow that few composers for the stage can capture. With James Conlon conducting, a listener might have expected a rip-roaring, pedal-to-the-metal approach. Instead, he went for majesty in the first of six performances over two weeks with the San Francisco Symphony.

Given Conlon's 10-year tenure as the conductor of the Paris Opera and extensive work with opera companies around the world, I was primed to have my ears pinned back with the impetuosity and raw emotion of the Dies Irae, the explosive centerpiece of this work. Instead of that, Conlon eased back slightly on the tempo, the better to let every note be heard.

The cascading runs in the strings that land on repeated bass-drum poundings called forth not so much the terror of wheeling demons but the power of the unknown that awaits us on Judgment Day. If the brass fanfares fell short of quickening one's pulse, they rang out with undeniable power. The chorus' soaring lines seemed anchored to an enormous engine that came at us inexorably. In short, the tempo allowed the music to sound spacious and grand.

For all that, the real glory of this performance came in the quieter moments. The opening measures seemed to drift into view through a veil of mist. Conlon made the music feel hesitant, expectant. The chorus managed the neat trick of sounding hushed and richly hued at the same time.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe dominated a strong quartet of singers, wielding an instrument that filled the 3,000-seat hall with thrilling massive organ-like low notes. Baritones wish they could make sounds like that. But she also floated breathtaking pianissimi, shaped phrases in brilliant relief, and throttled back to blend seamlessly when needed with soprano Christine Brewer in their duets. The Recordare was especially haunting.

Despite having to shorten the final high note in Libera me, Brewer caught most of the beauty of the soprano's floating lines. To her credit, she didn't try to stay with Blythe on sheer volume, instead relying upon her voice's innate creaminess to carry the line.

Tenor Frank Lopardo got off to a wobbly start in the opening quartet, but his voice bloomed later. His Ingemisco won't make anyone forget Pavarotti or Gedda, but the warmth and heart he brought to it were undeniable. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow doesn't have a particularly distinctive sound, but he has the range and attention to the text that made his contribution to the ensembles of particular value.

The chorus distinguished itself, as always, a fitting finale to the directorship of its conductor of 23 years, Vance George, who is retiring. If the exposed syncopations of the Sanctus didn't quite mesh with the orchestra’s, the vitality was there. Colors and textures couldn't have been more vivid, or more appropriate to each section of the Mass.

In the end, it was the assurance and confidence of the music making that distinguished this Verdi Requiem. Conducting from memory, Conlon achieved something special: A Requiem that eschewed the melodramatic for something truly religious.

Harvey Steiman


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)