John Nardolillo likes to think big.
After taking the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra to China for a summer tour, he dived into a season that will guide the orchestra, of which he is music director and conductor, through performances with internationally heralded pianist Lang Lang and a concert featuring Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2. Even as he discussed those events last week, he was set to take up the baton for the second week of the UK Opera Theatre production on Les Misérables at the Lexington Opera House.
But for sheer size, nothing will beat what the UK Symphony has planned for its performance Friday at the Singletary Center for the Arts. The program will be devoted to Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem, an extended work that will team the orchestra with the UK Chorale and Lexington Singers. The number of musicians and vocalists required to execute the piece: roughly 300.
"We have a little history of doing these kinds of works," Nardolillo said. "We've done the Berlioz Requiem, which is also huge. We've done several really large-scale collaborations with UK choirs and the Lexington Singers. We did a project with the Boston Pops at Rupp Arena with about 175 musicians in the orchestras and 500 in the choir. And, of course, there was the opening ceremony of the World Equestrian Games, where we had a large orchestra. There were 500 in that choir, too. So we've done some big ones.
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"Now, the Verdi Requiem was written for a huge space and for large choruses. But what's interesting is that its most beautiful moments are soft and quiet."
Premiered in Milan in 1874, the Verdi Requiem was something of a resurrection. It initially was envisioned as a collaborative tribute by several Italian composers in honor of Gioachino Rossini. When the project collapsed shortly before its premiere, Verdi began work on a full-scale Requiem of his own as a tribute Italian writer and poet Alessandro Manzoni. As Verdi is perhaps best known for his operas, the resulting Requiem bore strong operatic accents.
"Verdi was a man of the theater, and his most famous works are his operas — La Traviata, Il trovatore," Nardolillo said. "Even in approaching the Requiem, he is writing from the standpoint of the drama. There are four very important vocal soloists in the piece — soprano, mezzo, tenor and a bass. These are the size of opera roles, so we had to have spectacular voices."
For the soprano, UK turned to one of its own. Cynthia Lawrence, endowed chair in voice at the school of music, has performed at the Metropolitan Opera (as Madame Butterfly and Tosca, among other roles), toured globally with Luciano Pavarotti and compiled an extensive list of performance credits that includes several of Verdi's most famous operas, including La Traviata.
"For a vocalist, the Requiem is every bit as challenging as any of Verdi's operas" Lawrence said. "Verdi understood the voice so very well that he asks all of the singers, not just the soprano, to be in top vocal form and use their complete dynamic range. You will probably hear extreme pianissimos from the choir and the soloists as well as some grand, hair-raising fortes and sweeping lines. So he kind of condenses everything into one expression of the Requiem.
"I like drama, and Verdi does drama very well."
Lawrence's connection to the Verdi Requiem is also quite personal. She first sang it as memorial to one of the strongest supporters of her career, her grandfather.
"It was going to be a celebration of his life," she said. "Unfortunately, he passed away just before we began the rehearsal process. So it became a memorial. But the other aspect of it is that I have sung so many Verdi operas. In going back over the piece, I've discovered so much more about the music. No wonder this piece endures and is so amazingly exciting for everybody who sings it, performs it and hears it."
Much of that excitement for her stems from being able to share such a majestic work not only with an audience but with her students, several of whom will be performing, too.
"As some of my students will be in the chorus, they're going to see me working," Lawrence said. "We talk about that in master classes and in lessons a lot. 'How do you deal with an orchestra? How do you deal with the rehearsal process?' And they are going to see me doing it upfront and personal all week and experiencing it. There is no substitute for that."
Nardolillo similarly welcomes the opportunity for the UK Symphony to witness the Verdi Requiem from a creative rather than strictly academic standpoint.
"One of the things I love about my job here is the opportunity to put this music in front of young musicians who have never heard it before" he said. "The process of discovering a real masterpiece can change your life. I love that. I love working with the singers and I love the opportunity to present a great work of art for our audience.
"And this really is a stunning work of art that moves your spirit and your soul. It speaks to the most basic questions of the human condition."
IF YOU GO
Verdi's 'Messa da Requiem'
What: Performance to celebrate the Verdi bicentennial by UK Symphony Orchestra, UK Chorale and Lexington Singers with conductor John Nardolillo and soloists Cynthia Lawrence, soprano; Alissa Anderson, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Cady, tenor; and Patrick Blackwell, bass.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Learn more: (859) 257-4929, Singletarycenter.com