Saturday, April 14, 2012

Preparing (for) the Berlioz Requiem

Nearly 250 singers, 80 on-stage orchestra members, another 20 or so brass off-stage, one tenor all comes together in one earth-shattering moment on May 5.

That's the day I'll conduct one of the most dramatic and thrilling works in all the choral-orchestral repertoire, Hector Berlioz's Grand Messe des Morts (Requiem).

Featuring the members of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, the Chorale and University Choir from Butler University, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and tenor Joe Shadday, this performance will be the first Indy-based presentation of this work in nearly 30 years.

How does one approach a piece like this? Luckily for me, I have had a long relationship with this work ever since singing in a choral performance of it at the Jacobs School of Music waaaay back in 1989. My teacher Jan Harrington conducted, and I was blown away by the depictions of terror, majesty, humility and peace. The first time I heard the mighty off-stage brass bands in the Tuba Mirum, I got goosebumps like I'd never experienced before! I also wrote my doctoral dissertation on another of this composer's works, La Damnation de Faust, and gained a very deep appreciation for the composer's ability to work on a larger-than-life scale.

Since those formative years, I've been lucky enough to hear memorable performances of this work since then: at Cincinnati's May Festival with Robert Shaw, the New York Phil with the Westminster Choir College and Charles Dutoit, and in the newly opened Disney Hall in Los Angeles with the LA Phil. Each time, I've discovered new beauties in this magnificent work.

The choirs have learned all the notes at this point, so now we are working on the details: pronunciation of the text (a HUGE matter, given the massive sounds of the orchestra--our pronunciation of strong and clear consonants is often our only hope in the struggle to be heard), striking the correct choral "color" for each moment/mood/message, and of course preparing and strengthening the musical underpinnings at work within each singer...our ability to remain rhythmically solid and perform as a cohesive unit is crucial in a work of such awesome scope.

This is a work that, more than many, depends upon the space in which it is performed. Berlioz wrote it for the chapel at Les Invalides in Paris, a residence and health care facility for military veterans. An immense space, it gave this most visually oriented composer a huge spatial palate for his musical imagination. Every conductor since has owed it to the work to consider carefully the deployment of forces for a performance of the Requiem.

Our performance will take place in the beautiful Hilbert Circle Theater in downtown Indianapolis on May 5, 2012. This space gives us a number of wonderful options for placement of the large array of percussion, off-stage brass, and tenor soloist.

Join me for a FREE exploration of the work, and a tour of the concert venue, on Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 pm. We'll meet in the Wood Room of Hilbert Circle Theater on Monument Circle, chat a bit about the work, then take a special behind-the-scenes tour of the theater in anticipation of our performance. (Attendance at this In-Choir-ing Minds event is free; please RSVP to to reserve your space.)

Then, we'll see you at the concert! Saturday, May 5, 2012, 8 pm. Tickets are available at the ISO box office (

1 comment:

  1. A chorus from New York is combining with singers and an orchestra from San Francisco to sing the Berlioz Requiem at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on August 5. Singers in the Indianapolis performance may be able to participate in the performance, depending on whether there is remaining room in the chorus. Visit or email for information.