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Verdi’s Mass for the Dead: 90 Minutes of Heavenly and Infernal Glory

Hans Memling’s “Last Judgement Triptych”  in Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk, Poland. Web Gallery of Art.

Verdi’s Requiem lasts just under ninety minutes—the length of a soccer match. Yet the mighty choral work packs so much terror and serenity into its hour-and-a-half that the comparison with the beautiful game shows that the flashes of elation and despair offered up even by a World Cup final are mere pinpricks of sensation compared to the visceral thrills of the Italian master’s Mass for the Dead. The concluding movement alone, Libera me (Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death), is an epic of outsized emotion framed by poised invocation and shimmering acceptance. In the course of its harrowing dozen minutes an apocalyptic fugue rages; the echoing trumpet of Judgement Day, the choral fury and apocalyptic bass drum of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) heard earlier in the work erupt again—all as the music struggles from whispered C minor to transcendent C major. Along the way there are quaking tilts towards B major and D-flat major—each but a half-step from the safe haven of the tonal center but dreadfully distant from the hoped-for harmonic benediction, so close yet so far away. Thus Verdi dramatizes the back-and-forth contest between salvation and damnation. If a stiff whiskey is the generally prescribed medication for soccer fans suffering from stoppage-time anxiety, then something much stronger is needed for Verdi’s nerve-wracking finale—never mind the entire piece.

Exhilarating in the work from just thirty feet (about the distance of a penalty kick) behind the Columbian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada in London’s Royal Albert Hall last night for this year’s 64thProm concert felt more than a little like being in goal, what with the soprano high B-flats, brass volleys, and percussion blasts rocketing past my ears from close range. I was down in the so-called Arena where the groundlings of the present age mass to take in the BBC Proms, the world’s biggest and most accessible classical music festival that runs from mid-July into September every year. This accessibility comes in the form of cheap same-day tickets to be had at a mere six British pounds each, or in the radio and television broadcasts to be enjoyed live or archived.  Up to fifteen hundred folks—proudly calling themselves Prommers—can congregate in this ground floor oval, the many tiers of the vast Albert Hall rising above them to the gallery just under the domed ceiling where a smaller number of standing room spots are also available.

The last time I stood continuously for a ninety-minute entertainment was about five years ago at Anfield Stadium for a Saturday afternoon soccer game between Liverpool Football Club and Manchester United. Up at Anfield the crowd often breaks into the club songs as the on-field action proceeds. In the Albert Hall the faithful don’t sing along until the Proms Last Night when, in little more than a week, huge crowds will gather in nearby Hyde Park and in other outdoor venues across United Kingdom to join in for the great hymns of the vanished empire: Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, and God Save the King. For Verdi’s Requiem a few aficionados followed along with scores: many of the Prommers like to think of themselves as the true music lovers in the auditorium, and they’re probably for the most part correct in that assertion. They are erudite and eager, and have the staying power to prove it. Veterans in my zone of the arena were heard to disapprove, if sotto voce, of the lack of stamina exhibited by a nearby young woman. She took the occasional knee or leaned heavily on her father. The majority of the Prommers are men, many not exactly young themselves.

The only person aside from the Prommers in the Albert Hall auditorium who stood for the whole Requiem was the conductor Orozco-Estrada, though he got a lot more exercise than the auditors with his vivid mix of animation and precision. For the bunker-busting entries of the Dies irae the diminutive maestro uncoiled himself repeatedly and in quick succession from hunched crouch to full extension of legs and arms in order to bring in the nearly 500 musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under his command. Orozco-Estrada punched the air to cue Verdi’s thumping syncopations, and for the choral prayers ticked out precise musical time to elicit astonishing clarity of diction from his legion of singers. With exacting hands and stick he directed the eight-part fugal formations of the Sanctus, also mouthing the words with seemingly elastic eyebrows and lips, these exaggerated facial calisthenics visible to the denizens of the arena when the conductor pivoted to survey the left and right wing of his forces arrayed on choral banks above the stage on either side of the Albert Hall’s silent and forlorn organ.

Directly in front of him, the male orchestral players were trussed up in tails in ties, the women by contrast allowed to bare their arms. Some gender norms die harder—and hotter—than others, especially in symphony orchestras. Orozco-Estrada wisely went with an airier open collar.

For the groundlings there was more standing to be done than just for the duration of the musical performance.  The current Proms system for rush tickets is only a few years old. Nowadays one comes by the box office sometime after nine in the morning and gets a numbered slip, then returns ninety minutes before the concert and finds the proper place in line by showing that slip to the other Prommers. It’s a bit like a calm and convivial version of the floor of a stock exchange in the old days of paper buy and sell orders. Through these quaint means the Prom queue forms itself and conversations are opened.

A tall and well-preserved man of about sixty-five who had the number after me had come down from Manchester for a few Proms concerts, and after picking up his slip that morning had spent the day in the nearby Imperial College bar watching cricket.  The man behind him asked about the score. “298 for 8,” came the response—whatever that means. Grateful discussion soon followed relishing the good fortune that had brought in Dame Sarah Connolly, a frequent Proms performer who famously appeared as Lord Nelson to sing Rule, Britannia! at the Last Night in 2009,  as a last-minute substitution as mezzo-soprano soloist.

With that miraculous change of personnel, the six-pound ticket had just shot up in enduring value. Standing directly in front of the rightly-celebrated singer was as unexpected as it was unforgettable. At 6’4” I was a good bit taller than most of the other groundlings around me and so had the great Dame directly in front of me totally unobstructed.  That her voice did not soar to the gallery above did not bother me at all.

Though capable of gravity and deep expression, young Ukrainian tenor Dymtro Popov’s tenor did rise to the rafters right from his solo entrance in the Kyrie, emerging from the chorus’s eternal light (lux perpetua luceat eis) like a golden heaven-bent beam. Equally as compelling was the purity of Norwegian Lise Davidsen’s soprano, a radiant contrast to Connolly’s dusky mezzo, though there was slight friction between the two women’s voices in the placid unisons that evoke eternal rest (requieum sempiternam)at the close of the Agnus Dei. Davidsen has impressive power and vital warmth, but treats her vibrato as an ornament rather than a tiresome default setting. Anchoring the soloists was Polish bass, Tomasz Konieczny. His ghostly, almost silent Mors stupebit (death shall astonish) called across the threshold of this world into that of living.

While Connolly’s voice was often overshadowed in the ensemble numbers, Verdi’s Requiem is a piece that needs shadows, too, and she graced and troubled them with unmatched artistry.  Rather than the day, it was the night that she saved.

If sitting is the new smoking, then standing at the Proms might be the new skydiving. After nearly three hours on the feet someone behind me in the crowd collapsed as Connolly intoned in aeternum (in eternity) some twenty minutes before the end of the Requiem.  Frantic jockeying and whispering followed, and soon after that the squawk of walkie-talkies and scurry of attending feet. But the show went on. If one has to choose a way to exit this life before exiting the Royal Albert Hall there are few choices better than Verdi’s Lux aeterna. Our fellow Prommer stayed down but did not perish. Word went through the oval that all was fine, the stricken revived if still recumbent for the final movement in all its heavenly and infernal glory. No extra time was added after the regulation ninety minutes, though the fallen did not rise for the ovation—in the Albert Hall Arena always a standing one.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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