A Robert Shaw Legacy celebration by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began this week with a performance of Verdi's Requiem. Shaw, the beloved former ASO Music  Director, conducted the Requiem in five separate concert series and in a recorded performance during his 21-year tenure. He is also credited with creating and nurturing the ASO Chorus. In this concert, current Music Director Robert Spano was on the podium with both the ASO and its chorus, as well as soloists Latonia Moore, soprano; Jennifer Johnson-Cano, mezzo; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; and Nathan Stark, bass.

Latonia Moore © Dallas Kilponen
Latonia Moore
© Dallas Kilponen

Comprised of 160 singers, the all-volunteer ASO Chorus has been recognized with 14 Grammy awards and numerous other accolades. The Chorus is a point of pride for Atlanta, and it is deservedly admired for its articulation and power. However, power can be a double-edged sword and both edges were apparent in this performance of the Requiem. Most notably, in the Dies irae, that power resulted in an electrifying performance. In the Tuba mirum, the orchestra was breathtakingly powerful. Combining both the chorus and orchestra made for some thrilling sound. A quartet of trumpets played from the first balcony. Save for one dropped note, the trumpets performed well and their off-stage and lofty position added a bit of a cathedral-like sound to the tricky, rather dry acoustics, of Symphony Hall. The down-side of the grandeur of the orchestra and chorus together was that the four soloists were impossible to hear, except for Ms Moore, whose beautiful and strong voice could be heard above everything.

Mr Stark was effective in the "Death and nature shall stand amazed" section. His enunciation was good and he has a rich tone throughout his range. Unfortunately, the chorus often overwhelmed Ms Cano's voice in the "A written book will be brought forth" section. Nevertheless, she has a very nice voice with well-controlled vibrato. The quartet solo in the "King of dreadful majesty" highlighted the strength of Ms Moore and Ms Cano. Mr Griffey, and to a lesser extent Mr Stark, had some difficulty generating much volume. Ms Moore also added some fine trills in her performance. From this point on, and in contrast to her colleagues, Ms Moore sang without the score in hand. This freed up her hands to use them for dramatic effect, underscoring the operatic nature of the Requiem. In "Recall merciful Jesus" the soprano and mezzo voices were beautifully matched and blended.

Mr Griffey gained strength and confidence in the solo "I groan as a guilty one." He appeared to have  benefited from warming up his voice during the earlier sections of the work. Again, in "That day is one of weeping," the chorus overwhelmed the solo quartet, save for Ms Moore. In the Offertorium the ASO strings were, well, heavenly and the solo quartet were more balanced in their volume and strength. The chorus was exceedingly loud in the Sanctus and lacked subtlety and finesse. This was an example of the when chorus' strength was a liability. Maestro Spano  seemingly spent most of his podium time attending to conducting the chorus, so if its volume he wanted, it was volume that he received. In a portion of the Agnus Dei, the chorus sang while seated, which seemed to give them a bit more control over their collective volume. Ms Moore and Ms Cano benefited from not having to work so hard against a too-loud chorus. The strings introduced the beautiful Lux aeterna so quietly it was if their sound was arising from the ambient noise of the room. Ms Cano was marvelous in this section, producing a rich and sensitive tone that was perfectly matched to the music. It was definitely a showcase for her skill.

The Libera me was absolutely owned by Ms Moore; her strong, beautiful voice was never overshadowed by the chorus. She also became an actor during this section, using her posture, her hand placement and gestures, and her facial expressions to subtlety act out the hope and fear contained in the libretto. At one point, she added to the drama by turning away from the audience while singing with the chorus. She was absolutely stunning, and deserves high praise for breaking out of the mold of the soloist-standing-still-with-score-in-hand. How appropriate for the most operatic of Requiems.

Norman Mackenzie, Director of Choruses, deserves praise for his preparation of the chorus. In spite of the drama and contrasts in the music, this performance under Spano was overly aggressive and it lacked subtlety. The soloists, however, were very good, with Ms Moore and Ms Cano being particularly strong.