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For first time in 10 years, TFO brings full fury of Verdi’s Requiem

To say the earth will tremble this weekend when The Florida Orchestra stages Verdi’s Requiem seems a bit dramatic. But that’s Verdi for you.

In one of the most ambitious concerts of the 50th anniversary season, an 80-piece Florida Orchestra combined with a 120-voice Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and four soloists should keep listeners pressed against their seats through the sheer force and energy of this epic work ─ especially the shattering Day of Wrath section. Music Director Michael Francis will lead the packed stage.

“It’s certainly not just any other requiem,’’ said Mary Elizabeth Gibbs, assistant conductor of the Master Chorale and director of choral studies at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. “Being an opera composer, Verdi really shows you the drama of what the voice can do.’’

This is among the most-performed treatments of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, but was never intended for liturgical service. Once called “an opera in ecclesiastical dress,’’ the seven-movement, 85-minute work echoes much from Verdi’s operas: a luminosity of sound, emphasis on song, and dramatic contrasts of color. Above all, the music carries a universal emotion anyone can understand.

“Even if you don’t have any idea of the text or history or background, it takes the listener on a journey,’’ Gibbs said. “It’s very personal, so a listener can put his or her own meaning into it.’’

Verdi dedicated his Requiem to the great Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, a champion of Risorgimento – the Italian movement for independence. The first performance, in 1874 in Milan, was a hit, and the Mass has been a repertoire staple ever since.

“It’s a large work and a very popular piece and so we do it every eight years or so,’’ said Ed Parsons, the orchestra’s general manager. TFO last performed it in 2009.

Musically, the Requiem begins in prayer and ends with a plea for mercy and deliverance. But nothing prepares first-time listeners for the Dies Irae, or “Day of Wrath,’’ a cataclysm intended to terrorize those souls about to answer for their sins.

To heighten the effect, four trumpet players sit offstage, usually in a mezzanine or balcony section, surrounding listeners with an antiphonal fanfare. Conductors usually turn to face the audience as they cue their entrenched forces.

The Requiem contains some of Verdi’s most difficult music for voice. “There are lots of accents in the choral lines, text inflections, and technical challenges,’’ Gibbs said. “It’s definitely a big thing.  All four voices of the chorus ─ soprano, alto, tenor, bass ─ are put to task.’’

This will be my fourth hearing of the Requiem by our local musicians, including performances in 2009 and 1994. The first was back in 1987 in a production prepared by Robert Summer, founder of the Master Chorale.

Summer studied a score from the eminent choral conductor, Robert Shaw, whose markings filled the pages. The score also contained notes by the legendary Arturo Toscanini ─ a Verdi specialist ─ which adds something unique to the Master Chorale’s legacy.

“Bob did so much for this group and this community, and Robert Shaw, what an incredible pillar of our craft,’’ Gibbs said. “So there’s incredible tradition here. Whenever I prepare one of these masterworks I’m humbled by how many thousands of people have been involved down through the years, so it’s like their souls are in the room. It’s a very powerful and awesome responsibility. It brings a great spirituality to the preparation of the music.’’

The Requiem reached another level during World War II, when it was performed more than a dozen times ─ miraculously ─ by prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp and ghetto at Theresienstadt, known as Terezín. Unique among all the camps, Terezín Jews were allowed to do musical and theatrical productions, though mainly for propaganda purposes or to give false hope.

In this surreal environment, prisoner and composer/conductor Rafael Schachter viewed music making as a chance to sing to the Nazis in Latin what the prisoners could not speak to them: “the guilty man to be judged … how great will be the terror, when the judge comes.” Schachter had to continuously rebuild his chorus as more prisoners were shipped to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

In honor of those who perished, The Florida Holocaust Museum will partner with the orchestra for the April 20-22 performances in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The museum’s Executive Director Elizabeth Gelman will join TFO President and CEO Michael Pastreich before each concert to talk about the connection between the Requiem and Terezín. For the full story, click here.

Bonus Video!
Music Director MIchael Francis was up early to talk Verdi’s Requiem with Jack Harris and Aaron Jacobson on Newsradio 970 WFLA. Miss the interview? We have the full video here:

Verdi’s Requiem
With the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
Pre-concert Conversation begins 1 hour before each performance. Free with concert ticket.
Fri, Apr 20, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Apr 21, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Apr 22, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall
Tickets: $15, $35, $45
Note this concert is performed without intermission.

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