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Verdi's 'work of genius' will fill the air in Heinz Hall

| Wednesday, April 25, 2018, 1:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony Music Director Manfred Honeck
Felix Broede
Pittsburgh Symphony Music Director Manfred Honeck

Giuseppe Verdi was a man of the theater whose success at writing operas left him little time for concert music.

When he wrote his extraordinarily dramatic and colorful Requiem, one of the leading German musicians of the day said it was “an opera in ecclesiastical garb.”

But another German musician, and a much greater one, saw this music more clearly. Composer Johannes Brahms could be snarky, too. Once, when another prominent German composer showed Brahms a big piece he'd just finished and asked his opinion of it, Brahms replied — Nice music paper. Where did you buy it?

Winning Brahms' admiration wasn't easy. But he was unequivocal about Verdi's Requiem, declaring it “a work of genius.”

Manfred Honeck will conduct the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in three performances of Verdi's Requiem April 27-29 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall. The vocal soloists will be Simona Saturova, soprano, Kate Aldrich, mezzo-soprano, Konu Kim, tenor, and Jan Martinik, bass.

Verdi's achievement is all the more remarkable because of the music's compositional history. When Giacomo Rossini died in 1868 Verdi proposed 12 Italian composers each contribute a movement of a requiem in Rossini's memory. When the performance Verdi intended fell through, his contribution to the project – the final “Libera me” (Deliver me) – was put away.

Eight years later Alessandro Manzoni, one of Verdi's heroes, died. Manzoni was a playwright and novelist, and an ardent patriot. Verdi pulled out his previous setting of the “Libera me” and used it as the basis to construct the entire Requiem. That's why when listening to the Requiem the “Libera me” seems to pull the threads of the rest of the piece perfectly together.

“Verdi was a composer who definitely thought of everything through the context of the words,” says Honeck. He is a devout Catholic who knows the Latin words of the Requiem by heart, but when he first prepared this piece he wrote to the Vatican for a German translation from Verdi's time to be sure he understood how the words were understood when Verdi wrote the piece.

“There is no question that the words of the requiem have many elements which can be used for theatricality, starting with death and life,” Honeck says. “As an opera composer how could you not be excited at applying music to a very naturalistic “Dies irae” (Day of Wrath). Verdi was immediately occupied by the idea of how he could make it even stronger.”

Verdi used all the tools of his greatness in the Requiem. In the first movement, a simple change of harmony for “Lux perpetua” (eternal light) feels like a blessing after the somber opening prayer for eternal rest. The big orchestral chords announcing the Day of Judgement, punctuated by loud bass drum on the back beats, is followed by the choir expressing tumultuous terror.

Honeck notes that Verdi wrote the “Sanctus” (Holy) as a special kind of fugato.

“It is like angels flying around,” the conductor says. “He composed it like a scherzando illustrating heaven as full of angels and full of light.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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