Choral Arts Astounds with Washington’s First Performance of the Berlioz Requiem in 15 Years

By Katie McDermott

It was the first Washington, D.C. performance of the Berlioz Requiem in nearly 15 years and an expectant audience filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday night to experience the Choral Arts Society’s version of Hector Berlioz’s gargantuan Op. 5, Grande Messe de Morts.

The Requiem is epic, 90 minutes long in 10 movements, featuring over 80 orchestra musicians and nearly 200 singers. Berlioz was commissioned to compose the work in honor of the 1830 French Revolution, and it was first performed at the memorial service for Charles Denys de Damremont and his fellow soldiers who died in the Battle of Constantine. Berlioz was influenced by the work of Beethoven and the Grande Messe de Morts is considered a prime example of musical Romanticism.

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The Battle of Constantine, by James Paredier. It was during this battle, on October 12, 1837, that Damrémont was shot in the head and mortally wounded.

Berlioz’s Requiem was created for performance in spaces like large churches and cathedrals – which have a lot of echo and reverb. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall, like many modern performance spaces, is designed for optimum acoustic quality, and to contain reverb and echo. On Sunday evening the singers’ voices joined clearly, with nuances likely not apparent in 19th century performances.

The conductor, Choral Arts’ artistic director, Scott Tucker, is just the second director in the organization’s 51-year history, and his direction of the Berlioz was masterful. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and soloist tenor Dustin Lucas were equally impressive. Lucas’s sonorous tenor glowed, and the choice to stage him in the center upper balcony allowed his vibrato to ring out over the audience from behind, adding a special depth to the experience. The choice to split the brass section, with musicians on both the right and left upper balconies, also added a feeling of tremendous power, and a sense of being inside the belly of a musical beast.

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Scott Tucker, Artistic Director of the Choral Arts Society

After Sunday night’s performance, Tucker said that he admires the piece. “[Berlioz] has this great sense of contrast…There’s something about the way he paces this work… I think he just knew drama, and that’s what really makes it unique to me,” Tucker said. He revealed that part of the difficulty of staging the production is that “it’s in three parts and there’s no written alto part. In fact, the altos have to figure out what to do; they have to sing soprano or they have to sing tenor for a great deal of the work. And that’s very challenging.”

Before the Requiem, the company presented two shorter pieces. The first piece, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” is a beautiful composition from the St. Matthew Passion. The second piece, Take Him, Earth, was written by Steven Stucky in dedication to President Kennedy and features three poems associated with the Kennedys, sung in English. Originally written for chorus, strings and four wind instruments, Sunday’s rendition featured a larger vocal and instrumental arrangement and was dedicated to Stucky, who passed away this year. It was a beautiful and touching prelude to the Berlioz.

With seats as low as $15, and not a bad seat in the house, this Kennedy Center performance of Berlioz was as accessible as top shelf classical music gets. The Kennedy Center provides a free shuttle to and from the George Washington University Metro stop (on the Red Line.)

The Choral Society has several upcoming performances in D.C, including Christmas-themed concerts for all ages, and on February 19, 2017 they’ll perform their 29th annual choral tribute dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

Katie McDermott is a 2016 DC Arts Writing Fellow with Day Eight and a copywriter and social media manager for Plaza Artist Materials. She earned her undergraduate degree in English in 2010 and a master’s in Teaching in 2011, both from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She is also a freelance writer, musician and D.C. area native. Tweet at her at @kcmcder.

This article was produced through the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of the non-profit Day Eight, through funding from the National Endowment for the ArtsHumanities DCBrink MediaThe Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and DCRE Residential. To read additional articles produced through the fellowship visit Artapedia.com.

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