SC Symphony’s Verdi Requiem

By Scott MacClelland

THE LAST TIME the Santa Cruz Symphony performed Giuseppe Verdi’s great ‘Manzoni’ Requiem it was conducted by Mitchell Sardou Klein. That was in the late 1980s; I heard it at Mission San Juan Bautista and have obviously not forgotten it.

Nor could I. My love for this dramatic masterpiece borders on veneration; it figures among my Top Ten desert island treasures. So I came with expectations and trepidations to the Mello Center in Watsonville on Sunday afternoon. I needn’t have worried. Daniel Stewart, his solo quartet, Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus and the Santa Cruz Symphony itself have given me a fresh new impression that I will cherish at least until the next time one of our Monterey Bay symphony conductors accepts the challenge.

Verdi worshiped the Italian nationalist poet Alessandro Manzoni to such a degree that he demurred meeting him face to face for many years. Ultimately, the two men became friends, and when Manzoni died in 1873 the grieving Verdi set about to memorialize his hero. He conducted its premiere in Milan in 1874. It is impossible to not hear and feel the influence of Aïda, especially the terror of the Nile Scene when the Ethiopian king, Amonasro, threatens his naïve young daughter with eternal condemnation and exile if she does not betray her lover, Radamès. Amonasro’s fury ignites the famous “Dies Irae” of the Requiem. And, in turn, the spectacular “Tuba mirum,” introduced with blazing brass—including two extra bands in the corners of the balcony—and tectonic strokes on the bass drum. This is hair-raising stuff that shook the very foundations of the Mello. Moreover, its operatic soul, theatrical spirit and chromatic melodic lines sustain a palpable unease with little relief throughout the work.

As with all great works of art, this Requiem is a study in economic means. No good idea is not revisited again and again, giving the whole a true organic inevitability. And in a tradition that goes back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, c. 1607, the narrative gives rise to personal reflection in the solo arias duets and quartets, as well as on the chorus. Opera continues to excite this setting of the Latin mass for the dead, with startling punctuations, like the tenor solo on “Ingemisco”—perhaps a nod to the famous tenor solo, “Cujus animam,” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater—the sparkling “Sanctus” and the fugal final chorus “Libera me.” (The latter was actually recycled from Verdi’s contribution to an unfinished requiem in celebration of Rossini on the first anniversary of the his death.)

stuart neillThe choice of Michelle Bradley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Stuart Neill and Peixin Chen, all with major operatic experience, was inspired. Positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus, they were more or less not visible to the rows closest to the stage. But their voices soared over the orchestra to fill the hall. Tenor Neill sounded like he is ready to pounce on the heldentenor roles of Richard Wagner; he’s already sung Don Carlo (pictured in his understudy last-minute debut at La Scala in 2008) and Otello. (Cano made a big impact as soloist in March, 2016, with the Monterey Symphony. Bradley is slated to return to Santa Cruz next season for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs.)

Don Adkins’ program note tells of German conductor Hans von Bülow, who published nasty remarks about the Requiem in the Allgemeine Zeitung. At the time, he was a champion of Wagner and very much under his sway; Bülow hadn’t yet even heard the piece. But Adkins’ account leaves out what happened next, as quoted from the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, program notes: “Naturally, Italian opinion was outraged by the article. But the most devastating rebuke came from that stern guardian of the German classical tradition, Johannes Brahms who said that “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” To be fair to Bülow, that would soon be his own opinion as well. Years later he wrote to Verdi begging the composer’s forgiveness for his abominable journalistic sin. “There is no trace of sin in you,” Verdi replied with characteristic dryness; “besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!”

Anderson’s Cabrillo Chorus was at its best in the more reflective and intimate moments, from their first whispered “Requiem,” to their last “Requiem aeternam,” from their comforting “Lacrymosa” to their quicksilver “Sanctus.” But they had their work cut out when the orchestra poured it on in the big fortissimo scenes. The orchestra, for its part, was acutely responsive to conductor Stewart’s fully-memorized, finely shaped and dynamically presented vision. So, not only one of my all-time favorites but a highly memorable one as well.

I Cantori’s ‘Salute to Sal’

By Louis LebherzSal.

SAL FERRANTELLI BID FAREWELL to his loyal I Cantori de Carmel choir by conducting two emotional performances last weekend at Carmel Mission. Heard Saturday, the event included a vocal quartet—Katherine Edison, Linda Purdy, Arthur Wu and Reg Huston—and a chamber orchestra led by David Dally. For thirty-six years Ferrantelli has inspired and enlightened thousands of singers, concertgoers and students with his passion for music and demand for attention to detail while always striving for artistic excellence. It has been a blessing to the Monterey Peninsula to have had such a person on the podium. Ferrantelli was originally chosen by a group of local singers from the Carmel Bach Festival chorus who wanted to form a year-round choral ensemble. At that time. Ferrantelli had only recently arrived as a professor of music at Monterey Peninsula College. Since 1982 he has led the ensemble through a full range of music from ancient to modern, including a number of his own original compositions written expressly for I Cantori.

The program for this weekend was a retrospective of sorts. It included the first composition performed by the group in its inaugural concert, Thomas Weelkes’ madrigal “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above.”  The acapella piece was accurately and expressively presented. One could immediately sense the love and melancholy filling each singer. These were the elements that permeated the whole of the evening’s selections. The highlight of the concert was “Wie Lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” the middle of three movements from Johannes Brahms’ great Ein Deutsches RequiemThe orchestra and singers united in a rich, sonorous rendering of this great chorus.

The second half of the concert began with Ferrantelli’s 2008 composition, “Selig Sind die da Leid Tragen.” The influence and inspiration of Brahms was apparent in this setting, especially having just heard the same text as it was set by Brahms in the first half of the concert. Ferrantelli dedicated the piece to I Cantori, “with deepest gratitude for 36 years as their conductor.”

The rest of the concert was all Beethoven. The choir with orchestra and solo quartet performed first the “Kyrie” from Beethoven’s massive Missa Solemnis, Op.123, followed by the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” from Beethoven’s earlier Mass in C Op.86. The music filled the basilica and an enthusiastic audience stood and applauded as Ferrantelli wiped the perspiration from his face and the tears from his eyes.

It is a noble legacy that Ferrantelli has left on the Monterey Peninsula. To have an opportunity to hear a full, well trained and rehearsed chorus and orchestra as they perform the great works of the masters is becoming more and more a rarity in our country. Although the limitation of amateur singers, and the under-rehearsing of the orchestra due to time and financial restraints may lead to an occasional wrong note or intonation, what one gets instead is an enthusiasm and emotional commitment to the music that may not always be the case with paid professionals and an ample budget. The obvious love of music and for Dr. Ferrantelli filled the Carmel Mission, and the audience responded in kind.