By Lawrence Toppman
The Decca Recording Company used to boast about ”ffrr” discs: full frequency range recordings, which captured everything from barely audible pianissimos to ground-shaking fortes. That’s what guest conductor Kwamé Ryan gave us Saturday, taking the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) from fearful whispers to heaven-storming prayers in Verdi’s Requiem.
The Trinidad native is the last auditioner for the job of music director, which should be filled by early 2024. Ryan, who memorably conducted Copland here in January, gave you got a sense at Belk Theater of what he might coax out of the CSO and Charlotte Master Chorale (prepared, as always, by Kenney Potter). Ryan’s one of only three conductors to appear twice during the audition process, and I’d bet a gold-tipped baton that he, Jessica Cottis and Paolo Bartolameolli (the other two) are the final three candidates under consideration.
In some ways, Ryan reminded me of outgoing music director Christopher Warren-Green. He’s cheerfully animated on the podium, attentive to details, unlikely to linger in places where other conductors might do so – the piece came in at a trim 80 minutes – yet unafraid to use silences to make emotional points. He can hold the orchestra in check carefully or let it roar, and it made a monumental sound Saturday.
Brahms offers comfort for the living in his requiem; Mozart supplies a sense of celestial harmony; Faure paints an almost dreamlike picture of eternal rest; Beethoven depicts spiritual bliss in his Missa Solemnis. Verdi mostly wants to scare the pants off us crawling sinners.
He sets the text “Merciful Lord, grant us peace” to a titanic blast of sound. “Who am I?” ask the quartet of soloists. “A wretch to be beaten. Who will stand faith for me, when even the just are unsafe?” The singers seem to skip deftly among lightning bolts and lakes of fire while begging for grace.
Except for revisions of older works, Verdi had only two operas left in him when he finished this requiem at 60 in 1874. We hear things that turned up in different ways in those revolutionary masterpieces, such as the opening storm sequence in “Otello” and the canonic singing that caps “Falstaff.”
While the requiem’s solos don’t sound like arias, it’s operatic in its proportions and requires voices suited to the stage. The quiet moments don’t seem intimate, so much as calms before terrific storms, and the tension never lets up after the subdued opening sequence.
The Charlotte Master Chorale relished both extremes of sound, and each soloist found a moment to make an effect. Mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo used her lower notes to strike extra fear into us. Tenor Cooper Nolan treated the “Ingemisco” section (“I groan, my face red with guilt”) not as a man delivering a beautiful showpiece but as a reflective penitent. Bass Robert Pomakov’s darkly attractive sound seemed to come from a man astride his own grave.
I have the awkward task of reserving highest praise for soprano Melinda Whittington: “awkward” because we have sung together in Opera Carolina, “highest” because she deserves no less for the concluding “Libera Me.” Verdi had written a version of this movement five years earlier to end an abortive requiem for Rossini, which he patched together with 12 other composers. (It went unperformed until 1988.) His improvements strengthened and extended it.
The revised version requires the soprano to ride the whirlwind of orchestral sound at its peaks, drop into a hush that grips the audience in other places, and placate an angry God as if she were the title character pleading with the abusive Scarpia in “Tosca.” Whittington conveyed all this with her face and voice, ending in an exhausted final plea to be spared eternal death.
Pictured: Kwamé Ryan by Zycopolis Productions.