Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mozart’s Requiem”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mozart’s Requiem” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and I had the pleasure of attending Saturday night. The WVSO performed Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Act III, Tristan und Isolde,” Johannes Brahms’ “Tragische Ouvertϋre” (Tragic Overture) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous “Requiem,” with accompaniment by Marshall University Chorus, West Virginia Symphony Chorus and four featured guest soloists.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Maestro Cooper explained the difference in how American singers approach classical vocal pieces (to avoid a “twang” in their pronunciation) as opposed to singers from other countries. One of the more light-hearted moments came when Cooper demonstrated his point by singing a line from a country song. To which tenor Gerald Gray basically told him to keep his day job. Gray also emphasized the importance of proper, “internal” vocal technique over attempting to achieve an external, Pavarotti-like sound.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large crowd brave the bitter cold wind and remnants of the previous day’s snowstorm to attend the symphony. I’m obviously not the only one who couldn’t resist the combination of the WV Symphony and Mozart’s “Requiem.”

I’m not that fond of Wagner in general, but I did enjoy the WV Symphony’s performance of his “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde” four years ago. The prelude to the third act of Wagner’s opera was just as lovely, though a bit darker and more mournful. Since the piece isn’t drastically different from the original “Prelude,” I hope you’ll forgive my quoting from my 2009 review:

Wagner’s composition was mostly based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem “Tristan,” but it was also inspired by Wagner’s affair with married author Mathilde Wesendonck as well as the theories of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Tristan und Isolde” is considered to be one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century (the 2006 James Franco film Tristan and Isolde was based on Wagner’s opera), and its tonality is often credited as turning classical music in a new direction for the early twentieth century. Wagner was influenced by Weber and Beethoven, but his own work would inspire Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, and countless other composers.

The work possesses a sweeping, cinematic beauty and elegance, and was handled with tender grace in the many capable hands of the West Virginia Symphony.

The main difference between the opera’s first prelude and the third is its exquisite English horn solo. I don’t know the reasons behind the WV Symphony’s decision to place their English horn player on one of the auditorium’s box seat balconies, but it was an incredibly effective stylistic choice which lent her solo an almost jazz-like quality.

Next up was Brahms’ “Tragische Ouvertϋre.” Despite its name and Brahms’ apparent attempts to elicit sadness with the piece, his overture didn’t strike me as particularly tragic. Compared with my favorite composers Mahler and Beethoven, Brahms’ work seemed almost light and spirited until its dramatic finish. Whatever the composer’s emotional intentions were, I enjoyed the beautiful results immensely as played by the WV Symphony. It made for a nice, refreshing opening act to the evening’s classical headliner.

I was, of course, most excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle Mozart’s “Requiem” and, as usual, they did not disappoint. The orchestra was joined by soprano Janet Brown, mezzo-soprano Mariel van Dalsum, tenor Gerald Gray, baritone Timothy LeFebvre and members of West Virginia Symphony Chorus and Marshall University Chorus with their conductor, David Castleberry.

It may seem odd given my affection for classical music that I’ve only recently warmed to Mozart. I think I disliked him more for his popularity than his actual work. But recently I’ve given him another chance and must admit the masses were right about his genius. His “Requiem” was actually completed by another composer, because Mozart died before finishing the work himself. Subsequently, there continues to be a lot of controversy over how much of the piece was truly composed by Mozart.

The “Requiem” is divided into fourteen movements, many of which feature choir and soloist vocals. The sound and structure of the piece were apparently influenced by Handel’s “Messiah” and it definitely has a similarly grand scope.

The orchestra was restructured to accommodate both the composition and to make room on stage for the large chorus. My date, Brendan, said it appeared as if there’d been “a rapture of string players.”

Soprano Janet Brown’s voice was clear and effortlessly gorgeous and Gerald Gray’s tenor vocals were smooth and melodic.

The chorus singers’ voices and the orchestra’s instruments rose and fell in lovely unison, especially during “Lacrimosa.” I was reminded of the Bible’s description of Solomon’s temple dedication at which the singers and musicians were as one.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this specific performance to share. But I found some free, legal audio on SoundCloud and WVSO’s site had a link to the YouTube video below.

WV Symphony Official Site

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde

Guest Post By: Brendan

Tristan and Isolde is one of the greatest stories ever told, and the man who told it best was Richard Wagner. If you’ve only seen the James Franco movie, you’ve only just skimmed the surface of the sea of emotions brought out in Wagner’s brilliant drama. This week, you have a couple of opportunities to jump in…

The Irish company Wide Open Opera are staging the 5-hour production three times in the coming week, one of which will be streamed live at this site on Sunday 30th at 5pm local time (noon EST).

Yesterday, BBC Radio 3 featured act 1 of Tristan und Isolde, paired with Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead,” and performed by The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. That recording is available in streaming audio at BBC until next Thursday.

To enhance your enjoyment, I also recommend checking out Wagner’s book, which is freely available online at Project Guttenberg. You can also learn more about this groundbreaking work of art by listening to LA Opera’s James Conlon introduce you to Wagner’s concept of the leitmotiv.

Elsewhere: Classical Music Roundup

Guest Post By: Brendan

As Autumn approaches, I find myself craving Classical music. Following are some valuable resources for finding free, legal Classical music online…

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been releasing chamber performances as free downloads for years, and have accumulated an impressive collection.

My current favorite from their collection is Schubert’s Winterreise with Randall Scarlata singing baritone accompanied by Jeremy Denk on piano:

Schubert’s Winterreise: Part 1 (mp3)
Schubert’s Winterreise: Part 2 (mp3)

This NPR recording from All Things Considered, in which the Winterreise song cycle is discussed, is a work of art in itself.

WGBH offers free Classical performance downloads. Composers recently featured include Brahms, Franck, Bach and Debussy.

My Mahler obsession has been reignited. The adagietto from his 5th Symphony is perhaps my favorite piece of music. There is a sumptuous version of it available from Brevard Music Center, conducted by NC Symphony’s Grant Llewellyn:

Brevard Music Ctr – Mahler’s 5th Symphony (mp3)

Several Mahler Symphonies and many other works are available as free downloads from The Peabody Institute.

And finally, another of my recent favorites, the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is among the works available from Columbia University.