A strong believer in music speaking for itself, I have always been quite skeptical about pre-concert presentations. In my opinion, play the music and let the audience enjoy it.

© Choral Arts Society of Washington
© Choral Arts Society of Washington

On Sunday afternoon I was less than excited to hear that Mozart’s Requiem presented by Washington Performing Arts Society would be previewed in a 45-minute presentation by NPR music commentator Rob Kapilow. Moreover, as I read that Mr. Kapilow was to “unravel the mystery of Mozart” by discussing the music and conducting samples from certain selections, I was almost ready to hate it. In all honesty, unraveling the mystery of a genius has to be a hard thing to do. And most importantly, why do it?

However, nothing in the program description could have prepared me for what happened next. Thanks to Mr. Kapilow’s incredible presentation, my skepticism was not destined to last! Rather than “unravelling” the mystery of Mozart’s music, Mr. Kapilow’s poignant commentaries truly helped the audience focus on the important nuances and details of the Requiem that could have been otherwise missed. The best part of this presentation was Mr. Kapilow’s conducting. It was a lot more than just conducting. It was a bold, avant-garde vision of Mozart’s Requiem.

A skinny guy of medium height, Mr. Kapilow was King and God of the podium. The energy and passion of his intense, almost ecstatic direction turned the two hundred Choral Arts Society members into a choir of titans and gave them an impulse of crushing, almost inhuman force. The immense sound of their choral shouts and grandiose unisons left the audience stunned and quite breathless. This eye-opening presentation emphasized how crucial it is for a conductor to be a man of willpower, passion and guts in order to create a performance worthy of the great composer.

After the intermission, we came back to enjoy Mozart’s Requiem performed in its entirety by the Choral Arts Society Chorus and Orchestra under the baton of Norman Scribner. Along with four exquisite soloists, the choir had a story to tell. Sung with depth and true emotion, this funeral mass painted vivid scenes from the journey of the Human Soul to the eternal light. From the last sigh of the dying in Introitus to the anxiety of burning in the flames in Confutatis, from the helpless attempts to rise from the ashes in Lacrimosa to the final farewell sighs of a released soul in Lux Aeterna, this was the performance of superb vocal artistry, regal sophistication, refined diction, impeccable sound control and exquisite word painting.

Thanks to Maestro Scribner’s rather conservative conducting, the Requiem was performed with a genuine feel of a classical Baroque mass. However, Mr. Kapilow’s wild avant-garde vision of Mozart’s music could still be heard in every note of this beautiful rendition. It was that vision that turned the whole performance into a truly timeless masterpiece.