Requiem for a Dream

For the season finale, the Richmond Symphony, chorus and soloists tackle the awe-inspiring glory of Verdi's "Requiem."

Richmond Symphony Music Director Valentina Peleggi recalls being asked during her audition which one piece she would choose to conduct. Verdi’s “Requiem,” she answered without any hesitation. Her dream piece is a dramatic masterwork with contrasting explosive storms of instrumental power, and with gentle interludes of meditative beauty. A classic among classics, Verdi’s funeral mass is one of the most frequently performed choral orchestral works in the repertoire. Its most famous section, the Gregorian chant-derived “Dies Irae,” is quoted, directly or obliquely, in a myriad of film scores from “Citizen Kane” to “The Lion King.”

This weekend, Peleggi will get her wish. She leads the Symphony, augmented by two choruses, in performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The concerts also mark the debut of new Chorus Director – and James Erb Choral Chair – Dr. Richard Robbins.

“I’m really, really excited,” Peleggi says. “I love this piece so much. It is very powerful, combining the sacred and the profane. It is at the heart of Rome, and in general, of Italian culture, touching questions that really pertain to humanity.” The text centers on the final individual judgement by an implacable apocalyptic power. “He treats this incredibly moment of weakness and doubt in a series of duets and quartets. There is a dramatic aspect throughout this journey that is incredibly theatrical. So, it combines my passion for opera as well.”

The piece is built on the foundation of the traditional Catholic funeral mass, a Latin rite whose words would have been familiar to the original audience. Verdi wrote the original section as part of a never-fulfilled collaboration after the death of the operatic composer Gioachino Rossini. He completed it on his own after the passing of Alessandro Manzoni, the profound author, poet, and champion of Italian unification. The first performance, under Verdi’s baton, in May 1874 at Manzoni’s San Marco church in Milan on the first anniversary of his death. The soloists were the singers who had debuted the composer’s “Aida” two years before. It was an immediate success with multiple performances soon afterward at the famed La Scala opera house, followed by a tour across Europe. The Richmond Symphony performance takes place almost exactly on the 150th anniversary of the debut.

“I love this piece so much. It is very powerful, combining the sacred and the profane. It is at the heart of Rome, and in general, of Italian culture, touching questions that really pertain to humanity.”

The vocal scale of the piece requires two choirs, the Richmond Symphony Chorus and the Baltimore Choral Society, and four guest soloists. As Peleggi’s wingman in the performance, new choral director Robbins brings a wealth of experience from teaching and leading ensembles across the United States, to television and radio appearances, to collaborating with Grammy-winning rock group (and now Taylor Swift opening act) Paramore.

“The unique thing about the Richmond Symphony is that Valentina is an exceptional choral conductor,” Robbins says. “What that means, for me, is I spent a lot of time in the beginning studying a score and getting guidance about how Valentina might want to approach certain difficult passages so that I can help the choir to know what to expect. So when she steps in front of the group, she can take them where she wants. If the choir is a race car, I am the mechanic, making sure everything is up and running when the conductor gets in the driver’s seat.”

There are specialized challenges. “One hundred-and-fifty voices in the choir are 150 different instruments. It is not like conventional instruments, there are no bows to position or buttons to push. The sound is produced internally. It is a combination of the physical and psychological. You have to be pretty creative, use a lot of imagery, focus energy on unifying vowels, to make all those individual voices move together. “

Richmond Symphony Chorus Director Richard Robbins.

“I’m really happy and excited to be working with [Robbins],” Peleggi says. “It is nice to know not just for this specific piece, but for the overall journey for the chorus, evolving their sound. And there are other times when he will be conducting the chorus himself. So, he will be able to bring his own ideas, his own interpretation. Those two phases of his job are extremely important.”

The “Requiem” ends a brilliant season, looking forward to more brilliant programs to come. Next year’s schedule includes Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a full orchestral rendition of “Tosca,” a symphony by Wynton Marsalis, and a series of large-scale and chamber works centered on a rare assembly of eight visiting Stradivarius stringed instruments. “I’m so fortunate because the Richmond Symphony is playing really, really at their top,” Peleggi says. “It is a combination of talent, but also attitude. I travel and [hear] orchestras all over the world, and I am looking forward to returning for this finale because we have something special in Richmond. I feel so lucky to be here.”

In an era where everything is conveniently shrunk down to digital bits and streamed into earbuds, the epic scale and emotion of a piece like the “Requiem” can seem small and dated. But rendered by hundreds of artists in front of a large audience in an expansive concert hall, the majestic scale and intimate emotion of the epochal work has room to unfold. A rare conductor like Peleggi has the insight, energy, and artistry to bring to fluid, flowing life the fear and hope frozen in a score a century-and-a-half old.

The Richmond Symphony performs Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Dominion Energy Center’s Carpenter Theatre on Saturday, June 1 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $86. For more info, visit the Richmond Symphony website. 

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