Sacred, shmacred, as long as it’s good

Zubin Mehta conducts Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ with the IPO, Gary Bertini Choir and more than 200 performers onstage

June 27, 2019 20:55
3 minute read.
KHATIA BUNIATISHVILI and Zubin Mehta will collaborate on Mozart Piano Concerto no. 20, in D minor.

KHATIA BUNIATISHVILI and Zubin Mehta will collaborate on Mozart Piano Concerto no. 20, in D minor: ‘Music is something that is very free.’. (photo credit: ODED ENTEMAN/GAVIN EVANS)

Maestro Zubin Mehta once quipped that opinions are like noses – everyone has one. In the case of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Requiem, one must decide for one’s self.

The great English writer George Bernard Shaw wrote, after hearing a performance in London in 1874, “This is music which enters the heart and shakes the soul. It may well happen that Verdi’s Requiem outlives his operas.” 

Nevertheless, from its first performance in Milan in 1874 – with Verdi himself on the podium – until today, there has been endless debate how to classify this grand piece. Is it a sacred work, as its name implies, or a piece of opera? 

The conductor, pianist and journalist Hans von Bülow wrote after its 1874 premiere, “It is an opera in church vestments.” The question has been asked whether the operatic effects Verdi wrote do harm to the Requiem, or make it more perfect.

Mehta will conduct seven performances of Verdi’s Requiem in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem from July 4-14 as the penultimate concert for the IPO 2018-19 season, including a gala free performance on July 13 at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv.

The Requiem is a work much loved by Mehta, so it’s fitting that these concerts will a mark the last full year of his role as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. 

IPO secretary-general Avi Shoshani said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that in his estimation, this concert will be one of the highlights of the season.

 A requiem is a mass for the dead with roots in Roman Catholic liturgy. However, Verdi clearly wrote his Requiem for concert performance and not as a part of church service. Scored for full symphonic orchestra, full choir and four soloists, the famous composer Johannes Brahms came to its defense and wrote, “It is clearly a dramatic work of great beauty.”

There will be more than 200 performers on stage, and their eyes will be fixed on Mehta’s hands as he leads this grand assemblage. The performing choir is the acclaimed Gary Bertini Israel Choir, founded in 2009 to provide a professional partnership for Israel’s leading orchestral, oratorio and opera performances.

THE FOUR soloists taking part in the IPO concerts are each international stars: Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano from Bulgaria; the Russian mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova; Gregory Kunde, the American operatic tenor; and the young, talented bass from Moldova, Oleg Tsybulko.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was one of the greatest Italian opera composers and is famous not only for his beautifully lyrical and memorable melodies, but also for his cultivation of the bel canto singing style and endowing the characters who people his operas with distinct, human dimensions. He scored the orchestral role for the Requiem with a richness that goes far outside the framework of usual accompaniment.

The theme of death is almost always present in Verdi’s operas. In 1840, early in his career, Verdi’s wife, infant son and daughter all died, and perhaps, Requiem was an “opera” waiting to be written.  

A prompt occurred in 1868 when Gioacchino Rossini, the great Italian composer whom Verdi revered, died. Verdi proposed to unite a group of the best Italian composers, divide, and set to music the liturgical text to be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Lots were chosen and the choice Libera Me section fell to Verdi.

Although completed in time for the anniversary of Rossini’s death, this Requiem was never performed. Nevertheless, Verdi filed away the movement, and when the poet Alessandro Manzoni – whom Verdi also revered and considered a model of virtue and patriotism – died, he used what he composed earlier as a base for a requiem in Manzoni’s memory.

In 1874, Verdi completed and performed this Requiem in San Marco Cathedral in Milan. It was deemed such a success that La Scala, one of the world’s leading opera and ballet theaters, brought it to its stage for three more performances before it traveled throughout Europe. Its style consists of arias, ensembles, duets and quartets, reminding the listener of Verdi’s later operas, most of all Aida.

The jury is still out whether Requiem by Verdi is a theatrical or sacred work. “To each his own opinion,” says the IPO’s Shoshani. “The overall consensus is that it is an impressive and beloved masterpiece.”

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