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March 24, 2013 (Review of "Verdi's Requiem")

Symphony Silicon Valley delivers smoking Verdi Requiem

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News

Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem is a funeral mass, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic liturgy. It's grave stuff, at least on paper: "Deliver Me, O Lord, from eternal death," sings the chorus, in Latin. Yet while this Requiem trembles and weeps, it also entertains and thrills. Sumptuously scored, it offers one fabulous number after the next: arias, duets, trios and more. It's an opera masquerading as a mass.

That's the source of its popularity: this mass is mass entertainment. And Saturday night at the California Theatre in San Jose, Symphony Silicon Valley offered a smoking performance of the Verdi Requiem, the first of two performances with the 80-voice Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and four game soloists. It had many perfect moments, and even when the performance became a tad unruly, it was perfectly marvelous -- a soulful event. It even had a surround-sound dimension: trumpeters in the balconies, bathing the listeners in Verdi's call to the next world.

The night's hero was conductor Peter Jaffe, establishing stately tempos for the opening Requiem and Kyrie, then ushering in the Biblical jolts of the Dies irae, fired by drums and chorus. (The Chorale was in prime form, balanced and expressive; ably prepared by director Elena Sharkova.) It was Jaffe's main-stage debut with the orchestra; until now, he has led only [Target Summer] pops programs and [ArtSPARK] educational events.

But several weeks ago, the scheduled conductor (Italy's Giampaolo Bisanti) had to cancel. In stepped Jaffe, who already was preparing to conduct the Requiem for an upcoming performance with the Stockton Symphony, of which he is music director. The piece is 75 minutes long, and he knows it cold.

Saturday's highlights included the Tuba mirum, with a rich blend of brass -- including those antiphonally stationed trumpets, upstairs -- and baritone Jordan Shanahan, whose voice was like hot coals. (He sang the role of bass.) For the Recordare, mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas showed off her deep-colored legato, then sang in close harmony with soprano Christina Major. It made for an opulent passage, though not as opulent as the Agnus Dei, in which those same two soloists sang like twin sisters, entwined.

Of the four soloists, [soprano Christina] Major projected the greatest ease: floating, sparkling, resounding; a range of effects. ... Tenor Christopher Bengochea, long a local favorite, managed to shine in a couple of solos: his Ingemisco heaved with powerful emotion.

In the second half of the performance, as Verdi shuffles his cards and keeps varying instrumental combinations. ... The overall momentum and thrust of the performance remained strong, and the commitment of the musicians was clear. The closing Libera me ("Deliver me") was torrential, then tremulous, then sweetly resigned to the uncertainties of life and the hereafter.

Interesting side point: Symphony Silicon Valley cloned itself through the weekend, splitting its pool of musicians to simultaneously perform the Requiem and (at the Center for the Performing Arts) a program with Ballet San Jose. But there was nothing diluted about Saturday's grand performance of Verdi's operatic mass. When the music had ended, and when the bows and applause were over, the hall still was abuzz with the emotions of the previous 75 minutes.


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Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José