If you were to measure the potency of this afternoon’s concert of Verdi’s Requiem by the sheer number of grown men weeping at the end, I’d say it was an unparalleled success. In fact, after that grandiose musical testament, operatic in scope, the applause was nearly endless and every soul in the hall rose to stand.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain in the Verdi Requiem © Philippe Jasmin
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain in the Verdi Requiem
© Philippe Jasmin

The Maison Symphonique was full to bursting this evening, to such an extent that the public was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with the choristers themselves. Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave a short introduction before the piece to an eager audience in which he asked the question: does this music belong to the church or to opera? In fact, he argued, these questions aren’t relevant. This work is a fusion of the two worlds. This was an apt statement – for the walls of the hall have only just ceased resonating with the sounds of Brahms’ own Requiem performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal last week. Both composers chose to depart from the traditional liturgical requiem style. Verdi retained the sacred text and moulded the music itself into a more secular guise, while Brahms did the exact opposite.

L’Orchestre Métropolitain and its choir were in absolute prime form this afternoon. Never have I heard such impassioned playing from this group of musicians, nor such clarity. Nézet-Séguin, in his fourteenth year as Music Director, conducted completely from memory. Situated nearly inside the orchestra, directly above the formidable bell of Alain Cazes’ tuba, I was afforded a clear view of both the musicians and the conductor. There is a lot of artistry which goes unnoticed when you see Nézet-Séguin from behind. From the perspective of the orchestra, he has at times a tremendously powerful beat which explodes from his compact frame, and at other times an almost microscopic expressivity.

The four soloists, also a gift of the jet-setting maestro, were equally world class, though two of them stood out most prominently: mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. Cargill had an immense range of expression, and that kind of time-stopping voice which, while singing, the universe seems to revolve around. She had a wonderfully full, earthy tone and a marvelous control of pitch and vibrato. Foster-Williams had a gritty, masculine voice, fearfully portentous in timbre. At all times confident, his singing sounds easy for him, but is also knotted and tangled with the intensity of effort.

Of course the most widely known excerpt from this Requiem is the apocalyptic Dies irae, in which Verdi seems to capture the essence of that Old Testament God, a deity whose otherworldly omnipotence cast paralyzing fear into mankind. This is the God who razed Sodom and Gomorrah, who flooded his creation – the kind of God to which you must plead for mercy. Nézet-Séguin began this movement with atomic suddenness – the music began and then the shockwave came barreling after. The tempo was about as fast as one could hope to comfortably play it – pounding percussion and shrieking brass trills dragged us through the musical hellscape. A percussionist, a heavy mallet in each hand, pommelled two bass drums with all his might, producing a sound like the fists of God slamming into the earth. One might have heard all this as a bit over the top if it hadn’t been so controlled by Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain. Those terrifyingly hushed whispers of the chorus which Verdi marks sotto voce were in fact muted, but contained all the intensity of a full-throated shout. The brass played fantastically in this movement; Trevor Dix’s bass trombone cut like a white-hot sword through the maelstrom of sound. Principal trumpet Stéphane Beaulac also shined throughout the evening, providing some of the finest brass-section leadership I have heard in this city.

The Ingemisco provided tenor John MacMaster a chance to shine. When his voice is stable, which wasn’t always the case this evening, it has a wonderfully bright and focused sound.

Finally, soprano Ailyn Pérez (a replacement this evening) was given her chance to shine in the Libera me which brings this work to a close. When she sang alone with the chorus, it was absolutely captivating – such sweet, delicate expressiveness perfectly suited the close of this work. When the final notes died away Nézet-Séguin waited in hushed reverence – was it fifteen seconds or five minutes?

The Orchestre Métropolitain rose to new heights with this performance, a signal of even greater success to come.

****1