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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

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Your intrepid reporter was thrilled Saturday night to attend his third Verdi Requiem performance in a month. The work never grows old for me. This performing ensemble was the St. Cecilia Chorus under the direction of Mark Shapiro, whom we saw lead the Monmouth Civic Chorus in the same work on March 10. The quartet was the nearly the same quartet who sang with Mr. Shapiro in New Jersey, with the substitution of the handsome bass Harold Wilson for the equally handsome bass Ryan Speedo Green. (I hope Barihunks is aware of both of these men!) I wrote in glowing terms of Mr. Shapiro's leadership of the Monmouth Civic Chorus, and their eagerness to follow his every gesture. For a community chorus they gave a very fine performance indeed.

Mr. Shapiro's program notes for Saturday's concert proposed the same ideas as those for the New Jersey performance, about the soprano as sacrificial victim, the whole piece more sacral than sacred. He took the opportunity to speak to the audience before the concert about his ideas, but surely someone who hadn't read his notes would have been confused by his brief speech about community and a chosen victim. I found it deflated the energy and excitement of the beginning of the concert somewhat.

I wish I could report that was the only thing that bothered me about Saturday's performance, but in truth I found a few things troubling. One was the inclusion of the chorus from LIU's CW Post campus, which chorus Mr. Shapiro also leads. I attribute to the presence of so many young voices the sometimes wan, anemic sound of the chorus men. There were also some issues with the orchestra. A single glack on a trumpet entrance might be excused, but there were repeated issues in bassoons and other winds, and occasional intonation issues from more than one section. Most troubling, however, was Mr. Shapiro's conducting. This was not the relatively tight performance I recall under Mr. Shapiro's baton in New Jersey on March 10. There were issues aplenty with cohesion and togetherness. From the audience it was hard to tell his intention in many places, and it was clear chorus, orchestra and soloists had the same difficulty.

It pains me to write in harsh terms about anyone, but the very fine solo quartet deserved better. This was the Carnegie Hall debut for soprano Jennifer Rowley and tenor Noah Baetge, likely for mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo and bass Harold Wilson as well. They are all fine singers, and sang their roles well, but the fact that all four had issues in keeping with Mr. Shapiro would seem to indict Mr. Shapiro rather than any of them.

Mr. Wilson gave a fine performance of the bass solo part. His sound is full and solid, and his Confutatis was a pleasure to hear. His "Mors stupebit" at the end of Tuba mirum was delightfully in tune--frankly, something so unusual that it sounds odd for the strings to enter in the same key as the soloist after the brief passage. I wrote about Miss Rowley, Miss Sandel-Pantaleo and Mr. Baetge in my post about the the Monmouth Civic Chorus performance. All are fine singers, and I thought Mr. Baetge in particular had settled into the role a bit more, although I still find his voice light for the work.

Because the soprano role is pivotal to the Verdi Requiem, I fear Mr. Shapiro did the greatest injustice to Miss Rowley. Whereas in the New Jersey performance Mr. Shapiro seems to have encouraged an occasionally raucous but overall quite balanced performance, at Carnegie Hall he seems to have pushed Miss Rowley much farther in the raucous direction but failed to follow through with support from the baton. There were passages Mr. Shapiro in fact did not conduct, a notable example being "Fac eas de morte transire ad vitam" at the end of the Offertorio, which the poor soprano sings a capella. The effect was not what one assumes he intended, but rather of the soloist being abandoned. I certainly don't mean to suggest she didn't cope well with the challenge, but that the challenge should not have been there.

Perhaps being intimately familiar with the work and hearing it live so many times in quick succession--quite an unusual opportunity--worked against me in my attempts to evaluate this performance objectively. The audience was full of happy people who were quite enthusiastic in their applause. Even putting aside the obvious crowd of LIU friends and family, this was an appreciative audience. Perhaps that is a better indicator of the success of the concert than the observations of an opera blogger. I can not say. I did enjoy the concert, but I grieve that the Carnegie Hall debuts of the four soloists will not necessarily be uniformly joyous memories for them.