The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and the UK Chorale and Lexington Singers combined forces Friday to honor Italian opera's greatest composer, Giuseppe Verdi, in his bicentennial year, by presenting his colossal Requiem Mass.
Verdi's Requiem is technically a sacred work, but many critics have called it Verdi's greatest opera because of its dramatic nature, vividly realized by the roughly 200 singers and instrumentalists assembled on stage for the free concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts' Concert Hall.
The UK Symphony, under the direction of John Nardolillo, played the difficult score resplendently, displaying technical precision, felicitous blend and passionate musicianship. Nardolillo's unfussy manner on the podium was a model of clarity, admirably holding the huge endeavor together even in the trickiest passages of cross-rhythms and counterpoint.
The trumpet section acquitted itself with perfection in the apocalyptic introduction to the "Dies Irae" movement, enhanced even further when the rest of the brass joined the fray.
Likewise, the woodwinds played beautifully throughout, especially when flutist Jenny Maier, oboist Heather Baxter, clarinetist Vincent Dominguez and bassoonist Holly Smith engaged in their many solo and ensemble passages. Percussionists Brad Davis, Tim Wilburn and Chris Butler showed remarkable skill in their dynamic range, from ear-splitting bass-drum booms to infinitesimally soft timpani rolls, adding fantastic color to the orchestral palette, underpinned by the orchestra's excellent strings.
Likewise, the combined collegiate and community choirs, both under the direction of Jefferson Johnson, performed magnificently. Johnson had prepared both ensembles to sing the work with detailed contrasts in tone and texture. Even in the thickest passages, the singers rendered the score with clarity and assurance, the sopranos and tenors sounding effortlessly light and agile, the altos and basses warm and supple. The gigantic chorus gave goose-flesh moments when singing at hushed volumes, and it overwhelmed both the soul and the senses when unleashed at full strength.
The four operatic soloists, who together share the remaining third of the burden for pulling off the Requiem, each had effective moments but also struggled with the daunting challenges Verdi posed his leading singers. The problems can all be subsumed under the criticism that their high-quality voices were just a couple of sizes too slender for these meaty parts, and so they confronted technical deficiencies of various kinds at key moments of the score.
Nevertheless, soprano Cynthia Lawrence, mezzo soprano Alissa Anderson, tenor Jeremy Cady and bass Patrick Blackwell did contribute artistic singing throughout much of the evening. Lawrence and Anderson offered a gorgeous "Agnus Dei," the famous duet in octaves that shows off the soprano's high range, the mezzo's low range and the rich middle ranges of both. The women also demonstrated powerful chest voices at the bottoms of their registers, wielded with particular dramatic intensity by Lawrence.
Cady's extended solo at the beginning of the "Hostias" was exquisite, as was much of the "Ingemisco." Blackwell held the tuning of the soloists' ensemble passages together in crucial moments and sang with stolid expression, but the diffuse acoustic of the concert hall did not help project his voice.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.