It was the first Washington, D.C. performance of the Berlioz Requiem in nearly 15 years and an expectant audience filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday night to experience the Choral Arts Society’s version of Hector Berlioz’s gargantuan Op. 5, Grande Messe de Morts.
The Requiem is epic, 90 minutes long in 10 movements, featuring over 80 orchestra musicians and nearly 200 singers. Berlioz was commissioned to compose the work in honor of the 1830 French Revolution, and it was first performed at the memorial service for Charles Denys de Damremont and his fellow soldiers who died in the Battle of Constantine. Berlioz was influenced by the work of Beethoven and the Grande Messe de Morts is considered a prime example of musical Romanticism.
Berlioz’s Requiem was created for performance in spaces like large churches and cathedrals – which have a lot of echo and reverb. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall, like many modern performance spaces, is designed for optimum acoustic quality, and to contain reverb and echo. On Sunday evening the singers’ voices joined clearly, with nuances likely not apparent in 19th century performances.
The conductor, Choral Arts’ artistic director, Scott Tucker, is just the second director in the organization’s 51-year history, and his direction of the Berlioz was masterful. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and soloist tenor Dustin Lucas were equally impressive. Lucas’s sonorous tenor glowed, and the choice to stage him in the center upper balcony allowed his vibrato to ring out over the audience from behind, adding a special depth to the experience. The choice to split the brass section, with musicians on both the right and left upper balconies, also added a feeling of tremendous power, and a sense of being inside the belly of a musical beast.