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March 21, 2006 (Review of "Mozart Requiem")

Symphony, opera team up on Mozart festival finale
'Requiem' provides showcase for voice, orchestra

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Here we are in the big Mozart anniversary year, marking his 250th birthday, and, frankly, sometimes it feels like the tribute has gotten out of hand, with Mozart, and then more Mozart, on seemingly every program.

But it didn't feel that way Sunday -- even though, once again, we were faced with an all-Mozart event. This one, with George Cleve conducting, was a Ringling Bros. affair, with more than 200 instrumentalists and singers on stage at the California Theatre as Symphony Silicon Valley completed its mini-Mozart festival, which started back in December. The concert was a charmer, as mellifluous and dignified as it was large.

Ringmaster Cleve, who conducted the old San Jose Symphony for 20 years, has led each of the festival's programs and completed his homecoming appearances with two hours of music from Mozart's vocal repertoire.

This, it turns out, was a great idea, allowing for a collaboration with Opera San José and a pair of choruses, with everyone rising to the occasion. It was a tonic, this concert, and obviously a labor of love.

There were arias and scenes from ``Don Giovanni'' and ``The Magic Flute'' featuring wonderful, sure singing by Opera San José soloists including Christopher Bengochea, the company's exciting new tenor. And crowning the event was Mozart's great ``Requiem,'' a sobering performance with the massed voices of the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, directed by Elena Sharkova, and the San Jose State University Concert Choir.

Cleve got it started with the Overture to ``Don Giovanni,'' drawing a stately, shaded performance from the orchestra. It had a nice bounce to it, with clear, quiet playing from the brass and appropriately tamped-down sequences of rising arpeggios in the strings. Nothing overdone. A good beginning.

Then out came Bengochea, who, in his first season with Opera San José, is creating a stir. …His performance of ``Dalla sua pace,'' a honey-sweet aria from ``Don Giovanni,'' was electric….There was more on its way, first from soprano Janelle Laurenti, who sang ``Mi tradi'' from ``Don Giovanni,'' flowing through the number's long, curving melodic lines and more complicated decorative patterns. Also an engaging actress, Laurenti underscored the words -- about love and betrayal -- with simple, from-the-heart hand gestures. Her music, her motions; it all worked. She's another comer.

At this point, the program moved to selections from ``The Magic Flute,'' with soprano Lori Decter arriving to sing ``Ach, ich fuhl's.'' It's a song of desolation, and Decter delivered it confidently, with a tremulous, dramatic impact. She stuck around for ``Der, Welcher wandert diese'' -- the scene's contrapuntal opening in the strings was all aglow -- which calls for four singers and subtle ensemble interplay. It got it.

Bass Carlos Aguilar and tenor Adam Flowers sang with solemn, affecting power and were beautifully balanced by Bengochea -- who, in the midst of it all, had a charming duet with Decter…

The first half of the program (which also was performed Saturday to a sold-out house) ended with the Act II march of the priests, from ``The Magic Flute.'' Clearly and potently and, again, quietly played by the orchestra, this was more solemn stuff; the concert was edging toward the ``Requiem.''

How many times have we all heard this sacred work, which Mozart worked at on his deathbed, supposedly whispering the tune of the ``Lacrimosa'' to confidantes who saw to the ``Requiem's'' completion? For all its familiarity, the ``Requiem'' felt vital in Cleve's hands. Often a minimalist with his gesturing, he was a lot more active here, delivering clear, clipped signals to the far-off legion of singers (standing on banks of risers behind the orchestra) and at times hunching down to cue in the strings.

Just watching it was fun. And then there were the sounds: the wallop of ``Rex tremendae,'' with the choirs at full blast; the war-chant riffing of the strings in the ``Confutatis;'' the haunting power of the ``Agnus Dei.''

There were more soloists, too. Soprano Deborah Berioli coats and floats her notes; she was dignified and subtly commanding. Mezzo-soprano Michele Detwiler was all amber-voiced. Flowers and bass Kirk Eichelberger were eruptive. The performance, as if you can't tell, was a success.

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