By Bruce Duffie


The two great pillars of 19th Century opera were both born in 1813.  Richard Wagner died in 1883, but Giuseppe Verdi managed to survive into the first year of the 20th century.  Now, 100 years later, performers around the globe have been marking the occasion with performances of his works.  Perennial favorites as well as little-known items are being done in tribute to this great composer.  Lyric Opera gave us both this season-just-past: "Rigoletto," with its famous tunes and ensembles, and "Attila," which was done splendidly, but is hardly a repertoire staple.

Now, the Chicago Symphony will be doing two different programs of Verdi works this coming week.  One is the "Requiem," first heard in 1874.  The other brings together four separate works written at various times in his life, and collectively known as the "Four Sacred Pieces."  Each program, in its own way is a fitting tribute to the genius that was Verdi, though neither strictly qualifies as an opera.

The "Requiem" text has been set by many composers, but the one by Verdi is special for many reasons.  First and foremost, it is a highly personal response to the loss of the poet Alessandro Manzoni.  "It's a very impassioned, religious statement," says Duain Wolfe, the Chorus Master of the Chicago Symphony.  "It's very much his feelings and emotions.  I think it's a powerful statement that he's made."

Besides the great choral sections, portions are given to each of the four vocal soloists, and their arias and duets are as dramatic as any work in Verdi's canon.  So is it an opera?  Wolfe says, "It certainly is.  It's definitely an opera."  But within that framework, the "Requiem" presents Verdi's view of spirituality.  "I think every note is direct and clear about each statement," he says.  "The sentiment of the  ‘Lacrymosa' is profound mourning.  Each page tells us something of what Verdi thought about this moment of theology.  And the ‘Dies Irae' is powerful and exciting.  The text has a certain horror in it, but the music is really thrilling.  There is no doubt about it."

Preparing the chorus for such a large-scale work is Wolfe's task, and he approaches it with eager anticipation.  "I bring the experience I've had working with the great conductors of the world, but I use a clean score to be sure that I look at it from a fresh point of view."  He likes the great leaps of learning, as he calls them, which are made in every new look at an old work.  Wolfe muses about it, "even in this work, which we've done numerous times.  Every time you do it, you make this huge leap of informed musicality."

As the Chorus Master, Wolfe must prepare the singers, yet not interject his own style.  "It's not so hard.  The bottom line is to be true to the composer.  That's my job, and also the conductor's job.  I'm careful to not do anything that the composer would not have wanted.  Most of the time, I'm in a position where I know the conductors, or at least their style.  I have an idea of what should be done to present them with a product that makes it possible for them to do their best with it and put their mark on it."

He told me that he sometimes discusses scores with the conductor, but it's not standard operating procedure to work with a conductor in advance on a specific piece.  Usually he meets the conductor when the chorus does - at the first piano rehearsal.  "If there's something unusual, or if it's particularly involved, or brand new, I'll make a point of working with them early.  I worked with Boulez before ‘Moses and Aron,' and I worked with Solti on the ‘Meistersinger.' The Wagner was to be recorded and I didn't want to lose any time.  Besides, these are operas, which tend to have more elasticity in terms of interpretation."

Wolfe is dependent on the score.  "Notation is just an idea of what the composer wanted, but nobody can write down exactly one way to do something.  If there were only one way, we would just be automatons repeating everything."  He then gives an example of what he means.  "When it comes to articulation, which is so difficult with a large group, I'll curb something or modify something or expand something that the composer has done.  I might hold a note just a fraction longer than written so as to get the final consonant to be brilliant and rhythmic.  But that's for clarity, and has nothing to do with trying to change the composer's intent."

This week, it's Verdi who is the creator, so I asked about him specifically.  "Verdi wrote beautifully for the voice," Wolfe says.  "It's not always easy to sing, but those are two different things.  Verdi was uncanny in his ability to write melodies that work in the voice and harmonies for choruses and orchestras that make vertical and structural sense.  He can get really chromatic, like in the ‘Ave Maria' of the ‘Four Sacred Pieces.' It has startling harmonies at times that you don't expect.  But one reason he's such a great composer is that he stretches your notion.  Like a painter who makes you think of a flower differently because of the way it's painted, Verdi does that with his melodies and harmonies."

Now in his seventh season here, Wolfe succeeded Margaret Hillis, who founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  [See my Interview with Margaret Hillis.]  He had a similar experience, founding the chorus associated with the Denver (now Colorado) Symphony.  About singing, he says, "it's harder to be a good chorister than a soloist.  One must have good vocal technique, and also the elements of artistry," and beyond that the ability to temper and become part of an ensemble.  "Singers who make the best chorus members," he says, "are solid and confident soloists, and can make that very difficult transition to become a significant member of an ensemble, just like players in the orchestra.  When it all works together, it's electrifying."
Here in Chicago, the chorus is mostly all professional singers, so on the night of the performance, they're ready.  "We tune as an ensemble, just like the orchestra does.  And we hit all the tricky parts, just like a concerto soloist will go through those hard passages."  He further compares his vocal group with the instrumentalists.  "The beauty of an orchestra is all of those different sounds that come together.  The different colors make the remarkable instrument called the orchestra.  I like the fact that we have different sounds in our chorus.  Some chorus directors like to have all the voices the same, and work at that both in auditions and in rehearsals.  Same vocal color, etc., so the blend is unanimous.  I like different vocal colors to come together.  It makes a richer and more exciting sound.  Ultimately, though, it projects itself as one statement."

When asked about rating things, he notes that sports can be measured in terms of scoring.  In music, however, he says, "the part that you can be objective about is the accuracy.  Notes, rhythm, pitch, etc.  But that's the starting point, not the ending."  And it's a matter of personal taste.  "Three artists can be different and still all be impressive.  It can become silly to split hairs as to which is better, and that's counter-productive."  Wolfe says, "The real question is: Does it move your soul?  If you leave a performance feeling like you've been enriched, then it's been worthwhile to have been there."

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The Verdi "Requiem" will be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Deborah Voigt, soprano, Violetta Urmana, mezzo-soprano, Johan Botha, tenor, and Rene Pape. Bass, conducted by Daniel Barenboim at Orchestra Hall Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 PM, Thursday April 26 and Saturday April 28 at 8 PM.  The "Four Sacred Pieces" plus music from Wagner's "Parsifal" will be presented Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 PM and Friday, April 27 at 1:30 PM.  Tickets range from $20-105.  Call (312) 294-3000 for more information and tickets.

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Bruce Duffie was, for over 25 years, an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  One of his points of pride was the Sunday Evening Opera, which usually included interview material with one of the singers or the conductor.  Visit his personal website [] . 

Published in City Talk Magazine, April 20, 2001.