In Mozart’s final months alive, he composed three works in three separate genres: a Singspiel, an opera seria, and the Requiem. While Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito carry certain symbolic weight, the Requiem crowns these last works with fateful gravity. Opening with Beethoven’s mighty overtures to Coriolan and Egmont and Brahms’ providential Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), the Houston Symphony brought remarkable intention to Mozart’s sacred masterpiece, which closed the evening’s program.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Martin Sigmund
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sigmund

In 1791, Count Walsegg-Stuppach commissioned Mozart to write a Requiem for his wife, who had died in February that year. Ironically, Mozart found himself on his own deathbed sketching out the work with only the Requiem aeternam completely finished. Perhaps this chanced proximity to the grave infused the Requiem with its exceptional, reverent glory.

The program was a smart line-up. By nature of their genre, Coriolan and Egmont are introductions. Originally, Coriolan prefaced a tragic play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin, and Egmont launched Goethe’s cataclysmic play in the early 1800s. Both are riddled by fate and doom. And so Brahms' Song of Destiny was particularly apt, building from dark furious phrases like “But we are given no place of rest” to an ambiguous, quiet conclusion.

Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, dancing on his toes, made this performance radiant. Vitality and passion are practically givens when Orozco-Estrada conducts, but his most impressive feat came in the form of rests – those weighted moments of silent space that Beethoven crafted with such intention. In Coriolan and Egmont the lower strings delved into a thick, warm timbre. The leaping intervals in the higher strings, along with the quick dynamic constrasts, felt purposeful yet effortless. In the Schicksalslied, the strings continued to impress with delicate, resounding pizzicatos and ethereal lyrical lines at a divine pianissimo. When the piece ended, the audience waited several moments to applause, as if stunned.

With Beethoven and Brahms setting the meditative scene, the Requiem was august. Its majesty, though, came to fruition in Evan Boyer’s opening Tuba mirum. Boyer has an astonishing breadth as a bass singer, tapping into a sound that verges on profundity. Accompanied by trombonist Allen Barnhill, who delivered a remarkable obbligato solo, the piece was a standout. Making their Houston Symphony debuts, tenor Joel Prieto and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong were memorable in their own right, although DeShong’s admittedly rich voice might be too heavy for Mozart’s light ornamentation. Soprano Yulia Van Doren has an especially sweet voice, bordering on the angelic. There wasn’t a strong sense of collaborative ensemble, but individually the singers held their own. The chorus, directed by Betsy Cook Weber, melted in with the orchestra and added a distinguished lumosity to the work.

Mozart’s orchestration demands precision that, when done correctly, sounds elementary. The Houston Symphony mastered this feat, particularly in the Rex tremendae, which compositionally relies on the orchestra’s skill: neat bows, tight lyrical turns, and adept dynamic control. But it was the sense of intention, more than anything, which made this performance memorable. After a rousing Offertorium, Orozco-Estrada held the air a moment before beginning the Sanctus at a beautifully slow tempo. Control, emblazoned with passion, won the night.