November is the traditional month for remembrance of the dead. Thus, the entire program Sunday for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus consisted of Giuseppe Verdi’s mammoth 1874 setting of the “Requiem,” the Mass for the dead.
The combination of power and finesse required for the 15 movements of the Verdi piece is a tall order for any group of performers, and for most regional ensembles, it would be too much to ask. But Maestro David Bowden and his fine orchestra, chorus and soloists were well up to the challenge.
The Philharmonic, from the opening delicate, sustained notes, through the fireworks of the dies irae, to the breathless final release, played with the combination of precision and passion that is a trademark of this fine orchestra. The string sound was warm, vibrant and rich; and the woodwinds, brass and percussion played brilliantly and colorfully.
Favorite moments from the orchestra included, of course, the opening of the dies irae, surely the most fiery and famous musical embodiment of the day of judgment — and perhaps every bass drummer’s dream. Following on its heels was the tuba mirum, with its magnificent fanfare with four trumpets onstage and four more in the rear of the auditorium, two on each side. The surround effect was stunning.
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The Philharmonic Chorus sang with energy and was well prepared. A few entrances were tentative in the bass section, but for the most part the choir was outstanding. Its diction was crisp in the softer sections, and their contrasting finest moments were the mournful lacrymosa and the vibrant choral fugues in the sanctus and libera me.
For this concert, Bowden gathered an outstanding group of homegrown soloists. Sopranos Rachel Mercer Holland and Jane Dutton are both Columbus natives, and phenomenal young tenor Michael Brandenburg hails from nearby Austin. All three came together to join their mentor, the venerable Timothy Noble of Indiana University.
One doubts whether any concert hall in Columbus has ever before hosted four singers of such impressive international accomplishments — past, present and future.
Holland got stronger as the evening went on, with her best moments in her most challenging sections. Her entrance in the offertorio and the stunning libera me were both handled with delicacy and drama.
Dutton, a former mezzo-soprano who is now more at home in Wagnerian soprano roles, displayed her soprano chops with vigor and grace. Her lower range was a little affected by illness, but there was no sign of that in her middle and upper ranges, a rich, powerful sound.
Maestro Bowden hinted in the pre-concert presentation that tenor Brandenburg was born to sing Verdi, and he did not disappoint. Brandenburg’s technique was flawless throughout his entire range, and his phrasing was electrifying. One of my favorite moments of the concert was during Brandenburg’s ingemisco, when I was watching the face of his mentor. Noble’s face was blissful as he listened, in an expression that conveyed both “Oh my, that’s nice!” and “That’s my boy!”
Noble’s veteran artistry shone in his bass solos and ensemble singing. He displayed gorgeous phrasing in the confutatis, and his expression of the text of “praying, kneeling and contrite” was utterly believable. His legacy shone through both in his own performance and from those he mentored on this remarkable night.
Bravo to Bowden for bringing this quartet together.
As for Bowden himself, he can be a great showman when he wants to be, but on Sunday seemed a bit more subdued than usual, although always in full control. He knew he held a winning hand with this work, this ensemble and the preparation they had done. He simply allowed the performers to perform and the music to be.
The result was glorious.
Rex Benjamin Rund is director of music and liturgy at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel. Besides the U.S., his choirs have performed in Haiti, Italy, Austria, France, Spain and Portugal.