Following directly on the heels of the potent performance of Verdi's Requiem by San Diego Opera on Thursday, the New West Symphony tackled this great work for chorus, orchestra and four vocal soloists.
A requiem mass that is an opera in all but setting, Verdi's late score can easily take on different meanings in different contexts. These were very different contexts.
In San Diego, the requiem was given the day after the 49-year-old company callously and inexplicably announced, without advance warning, that it would cease operations in less than a month despite no debt on the books. On stage at Civic Theatre were a massive chorus and orchestra, fronted by four opera stars and conducted by Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti, who possessed the appropriate fire in his belly.
A full house listened to world-class music-making in stunned awe as the solo soprano warned of the coming wrath and judgment. That those words, ravishingly sung by Krassimira Stoyanova, reverberated with terrible power could be easily identified in the biting bravos of 3,000 disabused patrons.
Not so for the engagingly unedgy New West performance at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon. It was a modest, relatively funky Verdi Requiem led by the orchestra's young Brazilian music director, Marcelo Lehninger.
Unlike in San Diego, here was a hopeful rather than spiteful Requiem. It felt as though I had stumbled into a heartfelt performance of the piece in a moderately small town in Italy. And that happened to be a fine feeling.
The Verdi Requiem, which lasts around 80 minutes in a no-nonsense performance such as this one, is the biggest work yet that Lehninger has attempted in his two seasons heading the orchestra, which is based in Thousand Oaks and also performs in Oxnard.
The orchestra was joined by New West Chorus and Los Robles Master Chorale. The soloists were not big names. Lesley Leighton, the director of the choruses, took on the soprano part. She was not operatic, but the others made up for that.
A young mezzo-soprano, Rebecca Ringle, in fact, brought serious operatic attitude. In the "Liber Scriptus," she, too, warns of awaiting judgment. "Whatever is hidden shall be made known," she sings, "nothing shall remain unpunished." If the folks responsible for the San Diego Opera debacle had been listening they might have cringed mightily. Ringle conveyed the implacable force of a woman wronged.
But she also brought tenderness, even a little bit of not so holy sexiness elsewhere to Verdi's multi-faceted vocal writing. Her voice is focused, sure and attractively distinctive. She is currently assigned small parts at the Metropolitan Opera. She should be singing big ones.
Sunday's tenor, Casey Candebat, hails from Louisiana, but his is the big, straightforward Italian sound. His voice is fresh and strong and emotive. He bellowed to give the kind of pleasure big Italianate tenors are bred to provide and that audiences will probably never stop loving. He contrasted with a more understated bass, Raymond Aceto, who provided a solid and reliable vocal foundation for the solo quartet.
Lehninger had his hands full not only with four different sorts of soloists but a community chorus full of gusto and an orchestra of variable quality, with very good players and sections that need improvement.
But the spirit was there and Lehninger did all the right things to foster it. He didn't dig deeply spiritually. Theatrically, he emphasized extremes of quiet and captivating thunder. He supported singers, encouraged the chorus and kept the score moving. In the process he achieved moments of genuine beauty.
In some ways this must be an interesting and slightly odd challenge for Lehninger, who has begun keeping company with major orchestras. He just made his Chicago Symphony debut. This week he conducts the Baltimore Symphony. This summer he leads the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood and then joins the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a European tour as cover for its music director Mariss Jansons (whose health leads him often to cancel).
New West is obviously Lehninger's laboratory, and it boded well for all parties that he attained a life-affirming Verdi Requiem. San Diego take note.