Review: Powerful reading of Mozart Requiem opens May Fest

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

James Conlon put down his baton and paused midway through the Cincinnati May Festival performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Music Hall Friday night. That was the point in the score where Mozart penned his final notes before dying at age 35.

The gesture fit the mood of this performance, which was by turns powerful and deeply personal, and which allowed the genius of Mozart to shine.

The May Festival opened the 140th year since its founding in 1873 with all of its charming traditions in place, from herald trumpets to the little girls who delivered their bouquets to the soloists at evening’s end. Music Hall, for which the festival was built in 1878, was bedecked in flowers, and a festive crowd thronged its halls.

Conlon, now in his 34th year as music director, paired Mozart’s Requiem with settings of Psalms 23 and 13 by Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky, performed just once before at the festival.

Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626, formed the program’s second half. The 140-voice May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, was joined on their risers by the May Festival Youth Chorus, James Bagwell, director. A reduced Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed the score (the traditional Süssmayr version) and a top-notch quartet of singers performed the solos.

It was clear from the opening, enhanced by wonderfully dark color by the men of the chorus, that this would be a rewarding performance. Despite the large choral force of about 185 voices, the chorus sang with clarity. The great choral fugues were pointed and energized.

The fury of the day of wrath was palpable in their electrifying “Dies Irae.” The chorus seamlessly balanced great choral cries against prayer-like pianissimos in the moving “Lacrimosa” movement, where halting phrases illustrated the day of tears. The singers brought reverent tones to the “Hostias,” and glorious sound to the “Hosanna in excelsis.”

The soloists were well-matched and provided some exceptional solos. One of the most memorable moments was their “Benedictus,” which unfolded with pastoral beauty. Soprano Janai Brugger, in her debut, was a standout, communicating warmth and velvety tone and beautiful expression. Tenor Richard Croft contributed a focused, effortless sound.

Bass Jordan Bisch was arresting in the “Tuba mirum,” with its trombone accompaniment. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack added lovely color to her lines.

Conlon, leading animatedly without a score, brought out both the drama and the comforting quality of this music. The orchestra was incisive and consistently refined all evening.

Conlon, who has devoted much effort to music that was suppressed by the Nazis, opened with Zemlinsky, a composer who was forced to flee to the United States where he died, unknown and neglected, in 1942. His two Psalm settings for chorus and orchestra are polar opposites. Psalm 23, with its comforting text, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is pastoral and post-romantic in style. Psalm 13 is more agitated and forward-looking.

Conlon was masterful at shaping the orchestral phrasing in the opening of Psalm 23, and the choral sound glowed. The setting of Psalm 13 conveyed an unsettled mood, beginning with its opening hushed tones by the chorus to the words, “How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord?”

The orchestra performed superbly through moments that were both tumultuous and transcendent. Unfortunately, the chorus seemed less confident in these pieces, and the German text was unclear.