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A divine collaboration: Arcadia Players, Illuminati Chorus perform Mozart’s ‘Requiem’

Arcadia Players, Illuminati Chorus perform Mozart’s ‘Requiem’



For the Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Arcadia orchestra, joined by the vocal arts ensemble Illuminati, performed Mozart’s “Requiem” in Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College Saturday, before an attentive and enthusiastic audience that nearly filled the hall.

Arcadia is a group devoted to the performance of renaissance, baroque, and early classical music on early (that is, for the most part, 18th-century) instruments. Oboes and their close relatives, basset horns, and other woodwinds are made with a warm brown wood, rather than the black wood of the modern oboe or the metal of the modern flute.

In the brass section the horns, trumpets and trombones have no valves: trombones were thought to be essential in sacred music, and the playing of the first trombone in Saturday’s performance was indeed spectacular and agile.

In the string section there were seven violins altogether, two violas, two cellos and one double bass. The cellos were held between the knees, for the spike that holds the cello in the floor only came into general use in the 20th century. The conductor was Ian Watson, as excellent as ever.

The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, the first of three he composed in 1788. It was a moving experience to hear it performed with an orchestra of 20 players, perhaps a third or less the size of the modern symphony orchestra. Mozart himself did not have greater resources, so that the sound on this occasion was more “authentic” (for what that is worth) than that of the large modern orchestras.

Such a small group ensures that there is clarity in the part playing and the development of each movement. To the delight of the audience all the repeats were played, and one could feel the pleasure of hearing a much-loved symphony played with such delicacy and intelligence.

A requiem in the Catholic Church is a mass for the dead that takes its name from the first sentence in its text: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (Lord, grant them eternal rest). The length and text are variable, including much of the 13th-century Dies Irae, composed in rhyming Latin triplets, which describes the end of the world and the divine judgment.

To what extent Mozart, composing his requiem in the months before his death Dec. 5, 1791, was thinking of his own approaching end, cannot be known. The film "Amadeus" made an overly dramatic scene of the appearance of a messenger inviting Mozart to compose a requiem. The facts are simple: The messenger was sent by a Viennese nobleman, Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who wanted a requiem for his wife, who had recently died, which he would claim to be his own composition. The Count paid well — half of Mozart’s fee before he started composition, the rest after a public performance.

Mozart was unable to finish the work, and his widow, Constanze, quickly got hold of the manuscript so it could be finished and she could obtain Walsegg’s second payment. She first asked Mozart’s friend Joseph Eybler to complete the work by adding the other parts and the orchestration to the top vocal line and the continuo (bass line) that Mozart had sketched in. Eybler could do little and the work was completed by F. X. Süssmayr, also a former pupil and a close friend of Mozart. There is no profit in trying to ascertain how much of the final work was Süssmayr’s (and he claimed a great deal). What we have is a work of great beauty and profundity.

On Saturday evening, it was played and sung with passion and sincerity. The orchestra was supplemented by two trombones, the first trombone brilliantly played by Liza Malamut, and two bassoons.

The chorus of about 36 professional and semi-professional singers formed a semi-circle behind the orchestra, with the four soloists rather awkwardly seated to the left, having to cross the stage to take up their positions for their solos and quartets. They had pure voices, and it was a special pleasure to hear the bass, Woodrow Bynum, who had such a prominent part in Arcadia’s "Messiah" last December.

Meanwhile, the chorus was solid and musically flexible, notably in the double fugue of the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy); its crescendos were well modulated, its Latin pronunciation impeccable. In the limited space of Sweeney’s stage and with its low ceiling, the splendors of the music died away quickly, and one missed the great Gothic cathedrals which are the perfect spaces for this sacred music. Still, Bach and Mozart, even in Leipzig and Salzburg, had to be content with much less. The music is profound and moving wherever it is sung.

This was the final concert of Arcadia’s season, and as a community we are greatly indebted to Ian Watson and Tony Thornton (director of the Illuminati ensemble) for preparing their performers so meticulously, and grateful that here in the Valley we can listen to divine (in every sense of the word) music in our own communities.