Music News & Reviews

UK Symphony thinks big with Berlioz's 'Requiem'

Before resuming Wednesday night's rehearsal of Hector Berlioz's Requiem, University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra conductor John Nardolillo turned to the audience, looked up to the back corners of the concert hall and asked, "Are you guys ready back there?"

Stationed in the back sections of the Singletary Center for the Arts' Concert Hall were small brass and percussion ensembles preparing to give the audience for Friday night's performance a complete surround-sound experience.

They were there in large part by Berlioz's plan.

Nardolillo says that the brass ensembles were designed to be stationed at points in 19th-century churches, which were laid out in the form of a cross. The Singletary Center is, of course, neither a church nor shaped like a cross. But the layout of Friday's concert is a product of necessity.

There is not enough room on the Singletary Center stage to accommodate all 325 performers involved in the performance.

Yes, 325.

"You never see it performed much because of the massive number of musicians required," Nardolillo says.

He and others involved from the UK Symphony, the UK Chorale and the Lexington Singers think this is the Central Kentucky premiere of a full performance of the Requiem (Grande messe des morts). There is a Lexington Leader report of a private performance of the work at Transylvania University in 1951. But it was a reduced version, with a choir of 48, two pianists and one timpani. The story said there were ambitions to repeat the performance, but there is no record that it happened.

In a 2008 interview with the Herald-Leader, the Lexington Singers' second music director, James Ross Beane, listed the Requiem as the one piece he regretted not getting to present with the Singers in his 22 years with the group. That gap on the group's résumé is part of the reason the Singers make up the bulk of the 205-voice choir that will be on stage Friday.

"It's another notch on our belt," says Johnson, who also directs UK's choirs.

And it's a challenge.

"It goes from triple pianissimo to triple forte," Johnson says, indicating musical extremes of very quiet and very loud. "It's not just the size, but the technical demands as well. It starts hard and stays hard for a long time."

There also are organizational challenges to presenting a piece of the Requiem's size — coordinating the calendars of all the groups involved, assembling enough chairs and music stands for all of the musicians, and keeping everyone together once they are in the hall.

UK Symphony concertmaster Jessica Tzou had an amusing moment Wednesday, hopping up and down at the front of the stage to get all the musicians' attention to restart rehearsal.

"It's epic," Tzou said. "It's really inspiring to be part of something this big."

And it doesn't get done very often.

Berlioz's score indicates that more instrumentalists and choir members could be brought in to give the huge work even more heft.

"One thing that stops us is the fire marshal," Johnson says kiddingly.

The Berlioz Requiem, he says, is not the biggest thing they could do. If the orchestra wanted to present, say, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major "Symphony of a Thousand," they could move to Memorial Coliseum across the street and launch that behemoth.

For now, the Berlioz seems like enough of an accomplishment, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Nardolillo, who, like most of the musicians, will perform the piece for the first time.

Stepping off the podium at a rehearsal break, Nardolillo catches his breath and reflects on the rare opportunity: "Who gets to conduct this?"