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A Vivid Verdi

The San Jose Symphony's rises to heights of Verdi's Requiem

By Philip Collins

THE SEPARATIONS between church and state in the realm of artistic expression can get very fuzzy. Verdi's Requiem, for instance, could easily be mistaken for an unstaged opera with too many chorus numbers and a downer plot. As requiems go, however, Verdi's is uplifting, and San Jose Symphony's presentation of it last week made a moving spectacle--all the more so in light of the concert's dedication to the memory of longtime patron Faith Davies.

With the combined forces of San Jose State University's Chorale and Concert Choir, and a marvelous quartet of soloists--mezzo-soprano Gail Gilmore, soprano Camellia Johnson, tenor William Joyner and bass John Cheek--Leonid Grin and the orchestra took the audience to a realm of theater and emotion quite outside that of its usual offerings.

Verdi's Requiem can do that; it is a religious work of such individualized utterance that the composer's personal sense of ceremony outshines that of the church's. What a welcome shift in perspective.

Requiems often bring out composers' Sunday best, revealing dimensions of expression in style that are not present in their secular compositions. New degrees of solemnity come to light, along with vague stylistic conformities as to what is, and what is not, proper religious decorum. Verdi's Requiem, however, is theatrical dynamite of the first order.

Despite the staggering head count on stage--hundreds of singers and a beefed-up orchestra--Verdi's writing is concise, his orchestration select, even austere at times. The orchestral palette is identified by decisively drawn timbres that are repeated and varied upon throughout the work. Sparkling ingenuity guides an adventurous agenda of dynamics, tempos and key relationships to make a musical form of personal vibrance.

By the time of Johnson's gliding legato treatment of "libra me" in the final movement, it seemed as if she were a character we'd watched develop through a story line. So too with the other soloists, each a different facet of a composite individuality.

Grin's direction respected the details of Verdi's score. The beginning's near-silent emergence through the lower strings--then chorus--resembled the transparency of wind through grass. Grin fashioned the ensuing build with a strong sense of line, unhurried and fluid. It set a reverent tone for what followed, putting the evening's few shortcomings in the best of lights.

Joyner's fine blend of tone and accuracy accounted for extraordinary carrying power as well as warmth. His voice lent an ideal brightness to the ensemble that found a complementary match in Johnson's tender, but equally radiant, instrument. Their blends topped off the quartet sonorities deliciously, while John Cheek's buoyancy and clarity in the lower end added clarion strength from underneath. Verdi's melissmatic solo writing benefited from Cheek's brilliant timbre and diction. His largely a cappella solo, "Mors stupebit," during the Dies Irae offset the previous clamor of chorus and orchestra with singular momentum.

Strength and emotive power characterized all of Gilmore's contributions, along with special sweetness in her duet with Johnson in the Recordare movement. Gilmore's unnegotiated shifts in tone between head and chest voices brought an interesting angle to bear, like two people job sharing.

The choral work was, for the most part, outstanding. Considering the acoustic impediments that come with the chorus' upstage placement, the singing was remarkably clear. Choral directors Shaun Amos and Charlene Archibeque warrant kudos for the chorus' nearly inaudible whispers at the work's beginning and end. As is too often true of college choruses, the tenors struggled unabatedly in search of their upper range.

Inspired complicity was provided by the orchestra, with exceptional solos throughout and lots of solid section playing. Exceptions cropped up during some ill-tuned modulations, a grisly display of cello arpeggiation in the Offertorio, and antiphonal trumpet calls between balcony and stage that were in painful disagreement.

Grin proved again a grand champion of musical drama. The Requiem's energetic through line held fast, and Verdi's jutting contrasts and savory gentilities were elicited with gripping power. The sum of the score's myriad respirations--be they the quiet ebbing exchanges among soprano, mezzo and chorus during the Agnus Dei or the composite phrasing of the quartet and chorus' exchanges during the Sequence--was simply heavenly.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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