Classical Music

The DSO's Requiem Was Lopsided and Underwhelming

Here we have the sound of creativity longing for immortality, reaching for infinity and failing brilliantly--melancholy fashioned as a grand statement on the frustration of living with an expiration date. Inside, genius is showcased as elegantly brittle, the transcendent made vulnerable to the grim and the lowly; the supernatural grounded, flung to earth by the snares of time and flesh. Directly or indirectly, in The Requiem, Mozart crashed up against the one adversary he could not stifle with his art: Death.

The noise of that crash was, and remains eerily forceful and magnetic, tapping into some raw vein of emotion that doesn't merely express the tragedy of mortality, but thrusts you deep inside.

Perhaps the most imagistic of Mozart's works, The Requiem swims in scenes where windswept cemeteries, angels, and demons commingle, a nowhere in which time is frozen and glimpsed before laying waste to the dead. Here the shadows of gods muddle with sinners and saints, and heaven is mistaken for hell and vice versa. There's an impossible, if oppressive, beauty in its darkness, a profound solace too. The allure of this chasmic void -- the strange draw listeners feel for The Requiem's gloom and shadow -- finds a fitting description in l'appel du vide, a french term used to to describe a rather common phenomenon in which perfectly sane people, when faced with the dangers of a precipice, experience an almost irresistible urge to leap, to succumb to the largeness of an abyss. Similarly, when faced with The Requiem, one's urge is not to flee, but rather to welcome its gaping embrace.

Few works in the repertoire, if any, exist in such a state of mystery. Untruths, exaggerations and a carefully-ignored and perverse romance with deceased geniuses are its reputation's currency. Longing, dread, and a wintry celebration of life's end -- one at a decided remove from both the macabre and the romantic inclinations of similar works -- are the composition's true lifeblood.

Hinged on a marvelously democratic dichotomy, The Requiem contrasts high art -- western classical music composed by one of its most celebrated masters -- with the highest order of egalitarianism -- what feature of the human condition is more socially uniting and leveling than death? And while Mozart's music always had a certain 'all-man' bent to it, that feature all but culminated in The Requiem. Forgetting for the moment the very un egalitarian context of the formal concert hall, who better to execute The Requiem than The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the same group of music-makers who earlier in the season successfully negotiated the serpentine panorama of Mahler 9?

And execute The Requiem they did.

In the spirit of let's get this funeral over and done with, The DSO's Requiem was quick, quiet and underwhelming. Quiet...well yes and no. The 80-some-odd chorus, masterful as it was, was massive and much too loud set against the elevated whisper of the orchestral backdrop. However, the orchestra's slight volume was more a case of the large chorus drowning the instruments than, say, a throughly off day for the players, who, when audible, were sufficiently graceful and moving.

Sufficient but not resplendent. Don't forget: this is The Requiem. It's supposed to take us places, launch the audience to hell and back, death through life and on to infinity, up, up and out to the stratosphere, into the abstract heights of human imagination. And then further. Pretty as it might have been, what happened, though, was music -- just music. Music incapable of any transcendence or salvation beyond a bout of boredom, or work-a-day burnout. To put a finger on it, and whether a point of stylization or an instance of en masse deviation, the orchestra sounded marginally rushed. Moments of devastating Mozartian empathy and depth were lost for lack of space and time, each crucial juncture raced by before mounting a reasonable foothold.

Expression. That was the big issue, and the lopsided choral/orchestral mix and balance were the obvious culprits. In the hands of the DSO, The Requiem's emotional core felt wooden, all caricatures of genuine feeling outlined stiltedly, or vaporously. The non-uniform flow of the execution played a role too; the work unfolded in blocks and chunks, not streams. Every now and then a sliver of hope would find a fissure and push through -- a sorrowful pang here, a bittersweet dose of joy there -- but it always seemed to pass by too quickly. You'd reach to meet it, that flash of a chance for something real and poignant, but every time you'd come back with a handful of straws.

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Jonathan Patrick