Like the slightly eccentric uncle who rarely comes to visit, Hector Berlioz’ Requiem (Grande Messe des morts) showed up in Knoxville last weekend at the Tennessee Theatre courtesy of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Knoxville Choral Society. This uncle, however, came bearing gifts that were unusual in both size and dramatic scope.
Maestro Lucas Richman led the charge through this 90-minute, 10-movement work, first performed in Paris in 1837 as a Requiem Mass for the French war dead in the campaign against the Turks at the Algerian town of Constantine. Although Berlioz’ original performance was reported to have employed an orchestra and chorus of 400 musicians (he wanted even more), such scale is not practical in modern times. Still, KSO’s pared-down staging featured 96 orchestral players plus a chorus of 140 singers behind the orchestra. This number includes Berlioz’ requirement of four choirs of brass players to be placed at the four corners of the audience.
While such scale would seem to indicate an arrogance of excess, Berlioz was judicious in how he wrote for the massive forces. Simple melodies lead into rich harmonies—the hushed pianissimos of woodwinds contrast with outbursts of rich brass sound—all in a display of orchestration that often leaves listeners shaking their heads in amazement. Richman handled the ebb and flow of the musical emotions beautifully, but on this occasion his job required more than interpretation. He deserved the bravos for combining the orchestra, the brass choirs, the chorus, and the tenor soloist into a coordinated, balanced, unified whole. Without this unity, the piece could have easily disintegrated into a mess of unconnected movements and an embarrassment of fumbled logistics.
While the Requiem is, for all intents and purposes, a Latin Mass for the Dead, Berlioz had no misgivings about changing and rearranging the original text to suit his dramatic needs. Nor was Berlioz a particularly religious person—to the modern audience in a concert hall, his Requiem appears more a ceremonial fantasy of sound than a liturgical service, despite its devotional core. That core, the Latin text, was the responsibility of the Knoxville Choral Society, excellently prepared by its artistic director, Eric Thorson. The choral voices—crisp, clear, balanced, and confident—were solidly responsive to Richman’s direction.
Of particular note for the chorus was the beautifully sung a cappella fifth movement, “Quaerens me,” and the majestic ninth movement, “Sanctus.” Accompanied by achingly soft strings, the tenor soloist, Andrew Skoog, brought a beautiful sweetness to the “Sanctus,” his high lyrical phrases answered by the choral women’s voices. A jubilant “Hosanna” fugue for the chorus filled the middle of the movement. Skoog’s “Sanctus” resumed, this time accompanied and punctuated by the unique orchestration of very soft cymbals and strings. The “Hosanna” fugue then returned with full orchestra to bring the movement to a majestic close.
A mention of the famous “Dies irae” movement is a must for several reasons, not the least of which is its use of the four brass choirs and timpani. The movement opened with somber low tones that gave way to the chorus’ lament. The chorus is interrupted three times by ominous rising scales in the strings. On the third interruption, the fanfare of the “Tuba mirum” took over with the four brass choirs playing from the four corners of the theatre. The quadraphonic effect of the brass overlapping each other in waves, then combining with the timpani, chorus, and orchestra, was stunning and overwhelming. Even in a theater the size of the Tennessee, the sheer volume was probably startling and uncomfortable for some audience members, despite Richman’s warning beforehand. I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps a balcony location for the two rear brass groups wouldn’t have been a better acoustic choice, although I am sure that was considered.
That the Berlioz Requiem is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written is obvious. What wasn’t obvious was that Richman would turn out to be such a strong Berlioz advocate and interpreter. Unfortunately, performances of the Requiem, especially inspiring performances of them like this one, come along all too rarely.