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Doing the Work of Genius

San Francisco Choral Society

Aug. 14 and 15 at 8 p.m.

Every time Robert Geary returns to Giuseppe Verdi’s stirring Requiem Mass, “it’s deeper in my blood, but I have to prepare and rethink it. And that’s wonderful,” says the noted artistic director of the 200-voice San Francisco Choral Society. “Because I’m not a genius, whenever I go back to substantial music by a real genius, there’s always more to learn.”

The Choral Society has performed Verdi’s monumental work twice before under Geary’s direction, in 2000 and 2003, and will do it again Aug. 14 and 15 at Davies Symphony Hall. It will share the stage with the California Chamber Symphony and four soloists: soprano Karen Anderson, mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse (both of whom were featured in 2003), tenor Ben Bongers, and bass Kittinant Chinsamran. The program opens with the premiere of Donald McCullough’s Contraries: The Human Condition, a 20-minute work that the Choral Society commissioned for its 20th anniversary.

Premiered in Milan in 1874, Verdi’s sublime and soul-wrenching Requiem has its roots in a requiem Mass that he and other leading Italian composers collaboratively wrote in 1868 in honor of Rossini. That work was never performed. Five years later, Verdi composed his Requiem Mass, dedicated to the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. Verdi used the final “Libera me” movement he’d written for the Rossini Mass in the dramatic new work imbued with the spirit of Italian nationalism. Departing San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles, who conducted the Requiem Mass in May, describes it as “a supremely theatrical work, in the sense that it’s almost pictorial in its terrifying visions. It’s apocalyptic.”

For Geary, the tired old debate over whether the work is religious or operatic “is absolutely insignificant,” he says. “The Choral Society is a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists. We’re moved by the impact of the music itself, the range of expression, the emotion.” Works such as this and the Mozart Requiem, Geary goes on, “come from the sacred tradition, but they become universal. The composer got it on such a deeper level. It captures something more universal than any specific religious expression.” Geary calls the Verdi Requiem “the perfect synthesis of chorus, orchestra, and soloists. It’s a beautiful concerto for those three entities.”

McCullough, the music director of Master Chorale of Washington (D.C.), composed a six-movement work for chorus and soprano soloist, set to poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. When McCullough first proposed the idea, Geary — who founded the daring San Francisco contemporary ensemble Volti — was a bit disappointed, as he prefers new works that draw on contemporary poets. So much music has been set to Blake that Geary was hoping “for something new,” he says. “That being said, he did do something new: He explored some of the darker material in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Most composers who set Blake to music tend to focus on the happy stuff, like “The Blossom” and “The Laughing Song,” Geary says. McCullough uses those poems, too, but he also delves into the darkness of “A Poisonous Tree,” and “The Sick Rose,” whose lines Geary recites with relish:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Geary describes the music as “rhythmic and dramatic. The harmonic language is contemporary but tonal.” The composer, he adds, “is not trying to do something soothing and entertaining. He’s being provocative. That’s the primary responsibility of real art. He’s challenging us to reflect on part of human nature as expressed by Blake and through the music.”

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.