Requiem for a Mighty Oakland Team

May 16, 2014

OAKLAND EAST BAY SYMPHONY

Oakland East Bay SymphonyThe very large stage of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre wasn’t big enough to contain the mighty forces assembled for a May 16 performance of Berlioz’ stupendous Requiem. Crowded almost to the wings by a forest of strings, woodwinds, and 12 timpani, the brass players from the combined Oakland East Bay Symphony and Oakland Youth Orchestra found additional space up in the balcony. In a thrilling surround-sound effect of four brass choirs first heard in the Dies Irae section and recurring later on, great exaltations rang out through this glorious Art Deco pleasure palace.

The theatricality was stirring and entirely appropriate. Words and music repeatedly seize the listener in waves of fervor and deep contemplation. The brasses exclaim it: “Death will be stunned, also nature,/When creation will rise again/To answer the Judge.” A tenor and the chorus affirm it with the repeated “Hosanna in excelis” of the sublime Sanctus. The long arc from the opening Requiem and Kyrie to the consoling Agnus Dei is a grand and brilliantly shimmering one.

Berlioz, who once contemplated an opera on the Requiem text, wrote this coruscating 1837 masterwork in three months. Commissioned to celebrate a non-event (the assassination of a king that never happened), the work was repurposed as a memorial for a French general killed in battle in Algeria. The setting for the Requiem’s first performance, the enormous cavern of the Invalides, called for an aural knockout. Berlioz supplied it, with some 400 performers at the premiere.

For all its brawn, this Requiem, to its great credit, is anything but a wall of sacred sound. Full of delicate, unorthodox, and even arrestingly bizarre touches (the trombones and flutes keeping company in the Hostias, the startling and transporting soft clash of cymbals in the Sanctus), the piece is deeply, dramatically felt throughout. The bombast comes in well-placed outbursts that articulate rather than overwhelm the poignant and expansive feelings. Noting that the Requiem crosses religion and patriotism in a capital-R Romantic vein, critic Wilfrid Mellers referred to the work’s “visionary gleam.” Saint-Saëns praised the “constant and extraordinary elevation of style.”

Despite one notable liability, this performance under music director and conductor Michael Morgan’s heroic lead made a powerful impact. The concert brought the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s 25th anniversary season to an absorbing and exciting close.

This performance under Michael Morgan’s heroic lead made a powerful impact bringing Oakland East Bay Symphony’s 25th anniversary season to an absorbing and exciting close ... Morgan was in full control ... Again and again the orchestra delivered.

“What a lot of people!” Morgan said in his opening remarks about the man- and woman-power at his disposal. But when it came time to marshal the super-sized orchestra, Morgan was in full control. Rising in somber, chromatic steps, the violins and violas opened the Requiem at Kyrie – Introitus, fusing gravity and tenderness right away. Again and again, over the next two hours, the orchestra delivered.

Sometimes, with brass choirs and thundering drums, the effect was blazingly electric. But it was often in the softer and more nuanced passages that seasoned and younger players, working side by side, conjured rich colors and breadth of field. The cellos and basses opened the door on the contrapuntally rich Dies Irae. The woodwinds, with a particular warm contribution from the bassoons, spread the meditative, mournful calm of the Quid Sum Miser. An anguished Lacrimosa took on a spatial grandeur.

It was in the choral realm that this Requiem faltered. Sounding pallid, patchy and often indecisive, the Oakland Symphony Chorus made an indifferent impression and were often swamped. Even with a text in hand, a listener was frequently challenged to hear what lines and words were being sung. The singers had their moments — the men letting loose vigorously in the Dies Irae, some ethereal high notes hit by the women in the Sanctus. But even when they had a chance to shine on their own, in the unaccompanied passages of the Quaerens Me, the chorus suffered from pitch and textural problems.

The final two movements swept all reservations aside; the music made them irrelevant. Dressed in angelic white, his hands lifting gently from his side, tenor Thomas Glenn sent his soaring solo aloft with a fluid, airborne sense of urgency, like a bird in flight. The magnificent choral fugue flowed out of the solo, on toward the Sanctus reprise with those rhythmic cymbal strokes. The Requiem came to a soft and wondrous landing, lightly burnished by the woodwinds, in the closing Agnus Dei.

All in all, choral problems notwithstanding, the Oakland East Bay Symphony brought a memorable gleam to this ambitious end of its silver anniversary season.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.