“Not for the faint of fortissimo” is how the Wichita Symphony describes Verdi’s Requiem, to be performed by the orchestra along with chorus and soloists next weekend at Century II. We talked to conductor Daniel Hege about this last classics concert of the 2015-2016 season.
Of all the famous Requiems, what makes Verdi’s stand out?
I think it’s the sheer drama. It’s written very much like an opera even though it’s a Requiem Mass. A Mass for the dead is usually considered solemn and very religious and is meant to remember those who have passed on. But this work is no less dramatic than any of the operas Verdi wrote, even though operas are concerned more with things of this earth rather than spiritual.
His Requiem has all the passion of an opera; it has fear, and it has redemption, and it does have contemplative moments as well. And it has all the signature musical elements we associate with Verdi, like gorgeous melody, rhythmic energy and sumptuous orchestration. He was also a master at writing for the voice.
The piece can be enjoyed on any number of levels. If one were sitting there listening without knowing anything about it, one would be bowled over by the emotions it evokes, simply because of the power of the music itself. But knowing more makes it an even a richer experience. It can be enjoyed just on the musical quality of a first listening, but if you also know a little bit about the background, the translation of the Latin that is being sung, it has even greater power for the active listener.
Audience members will be able to follow the text in the program book.
What’s interesting is how Verdi decided to set the text, what kind of music is going on. Probably the most dramatic is the Dies Irae — Day of Judgment, Day of Wrath. You have this absolutely thundering music where the chorus is going all out and the orchestra is full bore.
Is there a key to understanding a Requiem for people who are not familiar with it?
I always ask listeners to ask themselves as they listen: What is the music itself trying to say? In other words, the text gives us a key or an opening to understanding, because we all can function with language quite well. But there is a deeper level: the way in which a melody is moving upward in a yearning sense, the searching for something, whether it’s faith or to find the meaning in something. Even if the meaning of the words were unknown, the attentive listener knows the meaning of the music by its nature. If the music is dramatic or if it’s in a minor key, the reaction of the listener is aligned with the text. The music should be underscoring or emphasizing what’s happening in the text. I would ask people to really listen to how Verdi chose to set the text to the music.
Local favorites Samuel Ramey and the Friends University Singing Quakers will be part of the vocal lineup. How many voices will there be?
I think we’ll be close to 200 singers, about 150 from the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus, then another 40 or 50 from the Singing Quakers, and we have the four solo singers –Barbara Shirvis, Sarah Heltzel, Matthew DiBattista and Samuel Ramey.
It’s funny that you mention that Samuel Ramey is a local favorite, and he is. He’s from Colby, Kansas, and he teaches at Wichita State University, but Sam Ramey is one of the most, if not the most, famous bass-baritone of his generation the world over. He currently resides in Wichita, and is now therefore local, but he is one of the greatest singers ever, in my opinion. And Wichita State is so lucky to have him on the faculty. He is local, but this is a singer of great reputation worldwide. It’s thrilling to work with him for the second time. We did “Bluebeard’s Castle” together last year.
What’s your favorite thing about the weekend?
Getting to be in the midst of this great music-making and work with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the leading arts organizations in Wichita, there’s no question about that. And to work with these magnificent singers, both the soloists and choruses, and to bring this music to life, because the music is only alive when we’re performing it, and that to me is so thrilling.
Why is the brass off-stage?
There’s a section toward the beginning of the piece – it’s about 80 minutes long, the entire Requiem – and probably within the first 15 minutes of the piece there are off-stage trumpets. They’re going to be in the house, in the audience, playing from the balconies. It’s a very interesting theatrical effect Verdi asks for; it sounds like they’re coming from somewhere else. It’s heralding in this great moment of fanfare, so it’s a remarkable moment.
This is the last classics concert of the season. How has the season gone, how are the audiences, is there any message that you want Wichita to get?
In every season we have eight classics pairs of concerts as well as pops concerts, community concerts, family concerts and educational concerts – we play for about 25,000 grade-school kids every year – so the symphony has a wide range of offerings, community concerts and family concerts, a whole host. The classics concerts obviously are classically based. The concerts have been going incredibly well this season.
This is kind of a celebratory end to the season. The audiences have been great. We are always hopeful to bring in more people. I firmly believe in the universality of classical music. Some people say, “I don’t know if it’s for me.” But jazz, rock, country, all of it is founded on classical principles, and it’s simply an extension of that. The whole range of emotion can be experienced in classical music. This is not music for elite people, this is music for everybody. Some people I speak to say, “I don’t know very much about classical music.” But I tell them, “You don’t have to know much about it.” You can look at a great painting and you don’t have to know much about painting to appreciate it. And I believe music is experienced in a much more immediate and visceral way.
When: 8 p.m. April 9 and 3 p.m. April 10
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas