Concert Choir’s ‘Requiem’ sublime

The Williams Concert Choir presented its final show on May 4. With the aid of four professional soloists and the Berkshire Symphony, the choir tackled one of the most legendary choral works of all time: Mozart’s “Requiem.”

Mozart’s piece was left unfinished. Commissioned to write the “Requiem” for an unknown patron, the composer fell ill soon after commencing work. As a result, the “Requiem” was completed by one of Mozart’s students. Thus, the very structure of the piece presented a challenge to the performers – to keep the material fresh and engaging to the audience.

Chapin Hall was filled to capacity, with a line stretched around the side of the building as concert-goers waited to get in. Undoubtedly, this attentive crowd heightened the focus of the performers.

The concert began with the premiere performance of a piece composed by Williams alumnus (and former Record Arts editor) Judd Greenstein ’01, entitled “Amergin.” The minimal a cappella piece began with a soft, repeated line in the altos that was gradually taken up by the sopranos, and then the other sections. The effect was that of a slow and intense crescendo that led to a rousing climax, with the choir passing the phrase “I am the Wind” around to the point of whispered silence.

A keen sense of dynamics was on display throughout the night. Student director Ben Isecke ’02 turned the musical focus towards Mozart with the short work “Ave Verum Corpus,” a piece also that utilized the orchestra’s strings. Gentle swells and precise harmonies gave this short piece a dramatic sweep that belied its length. Its stunningly concise beauty provided an excellent segue to the “Requiem.”

With the introduction of the four soloists, concert choir director Brad Wells took the conductor’s baton and began the “Requiem” – and electrified the room. Although some audience members applauded in between movements, Wells wisely decided to continue regardless, preserving the work’s momentum.

The individual parts gracefully interweaved through the swift and dense counterpoint of the “Kyrie Eleison.” “Dies Irae” was one of the strongest highlights of the evening, a dark yet exhilarating composition featuring a blisteringly fast string section. Amid the fast tempo and almost chaotic accompaniment, the articulation of the choir remained strong. Careful and precise consonants came through cleanly, victorious over the notoriously booming echo of Chapin Hall.

The following movement, “Tuba Mirum,” was the first to feature the soloists, providing a welcome respite from the focused intensity of the choir’s opening salvo. The solo movements helped provide a sense of pacing to the “Requiem,” giving it a shape that kept the audience attentively riveted. Furthermore, the solo sections gave the choir a few brief moments to sit down and prepare for the coming movements.

The well-rehearsed choir brought a sophisticated musicality and emotional depth to the “Requiem,” from the muted beauty of “Lacrimosa” to the majestic sweep of “Rex Tremendae.” “Sanctus,” one of the finer Susmayer-penned movements, smoothly juxtaposed regally paced and well-tuned harmonies with a brief yet energetic “hosanna” fugue.

The “Requiem” ended to a raucous applause. The audience had begun to wait patiently between movements, and their cheers reflected the mounting intensity of the performance. The orchestra provided a lush musical backdrop, the soloists gave commanding performances and the choir sang with great sensitivity to dynamics and harmony.

Wells was careful to keep the rhythms locked between the orchestra and the choir, no small feat considering the size of the combined ensemble. At around an hour long, the “Requiem” demanded a disciplined musicality in performance. Although the orchestra and the soloists were superb, the night belonged to the concert choir. Their energetic and sensitive reading of Mozart’s final work created a sustained emotional intensity rarely seen in Chapin.