It happened, as things tend to do in Requiems, in the Dies Irae, the second movement.
The low strings in the orchestra and high voices in the choir opened, staking out the extremes. Then the rest of the 325 musicians assembled for Friday night's performance started filling in. As the brass choirs at the back of the concert hall blew and the percussion started to roll, it was clear no recording could do Hector Berlioz's Requiem (Grande Messe des mortes) justice.
The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, UK Chorale and Lexington Singers capped off the 2009-10 classical music season in Lexington giving the city the extremely rare chance to experience Berlioz's gargantuan masterpiece. Best as anyone can tell, hardly anyone has done a fully realized version of the Requiem here in the 173 years since it was composed. In the curtain speech at the beginning of the concert in the Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, UK School of Music chairman Ben Arnold asked how many people in the audience had heard the piece live, and only a few hands went up.
Lexington music lovers seemed to grasp the gravity of the event, forming a line for tickets that at one point went out the door, and delayed the performance briefly.
Under John Nardolillo's direction, it was well worth the wait — a few minutes or 173 years.
There was, of course, the sheer power of the 325 musicians working in concert to convey the passages of wrath, judgement and glory. But what made this performance incredible was the sensitivity with which all the musicians approached it. The Berlioz Requiem's power is as much in near-silent moments, such as a soft cello trill or the steady pump of bassoons through the Offertorium, as it is in its passages of bombast.
Friday's performance was all the more impressive considering the rarely performed piece was new to nearly everyone in the show, including Nardolillo, and they only had a couple of chances to practice it before Friday night. The musicians brought their best to this performance, including tenor soloist Jason Brown, who rose to the intimidating task of being the sole solo voice in this mass of musicianship.
One quibble with the concert would be in formatting. The event opened with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and then offered the first four movements of the Requiem, then an intermission, and then the final six movements. By the end of the fourth movement, we were drawn into the piece. Inserting the intermission broke the mood and presented the audience with an awkward question of whether to applaud in the middle of a requiem and the musicians with the apparently equally awkward question of how to respond.
Lexington presenters seem to be somewhat locked into an idea that performances must have two halves with multiple selections. Pieces like the Berlioz Requiem can and really ought to stand on their own, and asking an audience to sit for 90 minutes is perfectly reasonable — theater and movie crowds do it all the time.
But that choice hardly ruined the evening.
It is great to bring in marquee soloists, as the UK Symphony has done and will continue to do. But what Nardolillo and chorus director Jefferson Johnson did in putting together this concert was show that Lexington has the talent to pull off a major work that is rarely performed because of the scope of the production.
It was town and gown on an epic scale.