“This is my score from the last time I did it — you can see that’s it’s not exactly a new piece for me.” Benjamin Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is displaying his copy of the Verdi Requiem, which is so battered and marked up, it looks as if it could be the conductor’s score from the piece’s 1874 premiere. In fact, this copy goes back to 1981, when, Zander says, he led the Verdi Requiem “with Chorus pro Musica and many of the same players sitting in the orchestra today. It’s the first choral piece I ever conducted, and that was the first time we ever went into Symphony Hall. I had never conducted a note in Symphony Hall, and it was a thrilling experience.”
Zander will be hoping to re-create that experience on April 24, when he brings the Philharmonic and Chorus pro Musica back to Symphony Hall for the Requiem, with American soprano Angela Meade, Russian mezzo Julia Gertseva, American tenor William Davenport (a late replacement for Stephen Costello, who’s canceled with the flu), and Polish bass Daniel Borowski as soloists.
What prompted him to make his Symphony Hall debut with a piece he’d never conducted? “I think it is the pinnacle piece for chorus,” he explains. “It’s very dramatic, and it suits my temperament. I love the extremes of the music, I love the fact that it’s deeply emotional.”
Verdi composed the Requiem in memory of Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who, says Zander, “represented all that Verdi held dear and revered in the Italian character.” Zander adds that Verdi was not considered particularly religious. “He uses the liturgy, and he uses it with great understanding, but it’s not as if he’s presenting this as a Mass; he’s presenting it as a drama about the feelings of the people. I think there are two kinds of music in the piece: There’s music which is terribly frightening, terrifying and ferocious and anguished, and then there’s music of tremendous solace and reverence and beauty and uplift.”
The piece, he says, has been a challenge for the orchestra. “We usually have one string rehearsal, but for this we have two. The string parts are actually nothing like as difficult as the Elgar First or the great Mahler symphonies. But what is needed is a lot of work on the Verdi sound, which is quite different from the German sound, and it’s unfamiliar to them. It’s a floated sound, very free and edgeless; there are no bar lines, nothing rigid. So we worked very hard on that.”
It’s also a challenge for the soloists, he explains, with a notorious soprano part. “It goes as high as a soprano can go — she has to be able to float a B-flat pianissimo,” he says. “Angela Meade is a great singer, she’s done the piece a lot, she sings Verdi at the Met all the time. And she can do
everything: She can do soft, she can do immensely loud, she can go high with the greatest of ease.”
Zander is also excited about Borowski, who, he says, “has a gorgeous real bass voice. You need a real bass for the Verdi Requiem, not a bass baritone. Daniel has on the Internet a very brief Don Basilio aria [from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”], which is full of character. Which is what you need, you need great personalities. And very sensitive voices, people who intertwine with each other and can match each other. There’s a lot of ensemble singing, and you can’t have a good Verdi Requiem unless you have a great quartet.”
One last secret to a good Requiem, Zander suggests, is Verdi’s metronome markings. “The first movement is marked Andante at 80, and that’s considerably faster than it’s often done,” Zander says, “and then the Dies Irae is also 80, the same tempo, but it’s usually played much too fast. I follow that 80 exactly; it’s much more terrifying that way. And I’ve found that all Verdi’s tempi work, so why wouldn’t you do it?”
This concert marks the end of the Philharmonic season (details of the 2016–17 season will be announced on April 24), but not Zander’s. On May 8 at Symphony Hall, he’ll lead the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in a program to include the Brahms Double Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony. On June 6 and 7, Zander and the BPYO will present two free concerts in Carnegie Hall. And a week later they’ll embark on a two-week tour of Spain, scheduled to include concerts in Barcelona, Granada, Valladolid, and Madrid.
With Chorus pro Musica. At Symphony Hall, April 24 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $25-$105. 617-236-0999, www.bostonphil.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.