Valčuha launches new Houston Symphony era with impassioned yet nuanced Verdi Requiem

Sat Sep 17, 2022 at 1:39 pm
By Steven Brown
Juraj Valčuha conducted the Houston Symphony & Chorus in Verdi’s Requiem Friday night at Jones Hall.

The Houston Symphony moved into a new era Friday when Juraj Valčuha, a Slovakian who leads Italy’s San Carlo opera house, opened his first season as the orchestra’s music director with the thunder and soulfulness of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.

A meaty work from the symphonic repertoire is usually a more typical vehicle to herald a new regime. Valčuha checked that box in May, when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a prelude to taking charge. Verdi’s quasi-operatic Requiem not only represented a different brand of iconic masterwork, but signaled one facet of what the orchestra’s new leader has planned for Houston.

Valčuha, whose Naples stint ends in December, has said he hopes to leads an opera-in-concert in Houston each season. (Oedipus Rex, Igor Stravinsky’s oratorio-opera hybrid, will start the series in May.) Playing opera, Valčuha thinks, helps cultivate an orchestra’s alertness and style.

The orchestra certainly played alertly Friday night. That came across most arrestingly in the brilliance and sweep the players put into the score’s most virtuosic strokes, such as the fire-and-brimstone outbursts of the “Dies Irae.” Valčuha set off the likes of that without resorting to histrionics of his own: A flick of his hand was generally all it took.

His light touch also conjured up an unusually dashing, airy “Sanctus,” where the Houston Symphony Chorus was on its toes, too—injecting smoothness amid the bustle when Valčuha called for it.

The players were just as responsive when Valčuha wanted to savor lyrical details, such as the oboe solo in the tenor’s “Ingemisco” and the shimmering postlude to the “Domine Jesu Christe.” By lingering a bit here, letting a melody swell a bit there, Valčuha and the players gave quiet moments a fresh impact.

And the orchestra, thanks to its deft playing, supported the soloists adroitly in even the most delicate passages. The peak of that may have been the “Agnus Dei,” with its still, spacious melody: First, the strings intoned the tune as quietly and smoothly as soprano Ana María Martínez and mezzo Marina Prudenskaya; then the rest of the orchestra added sonic embroideries without crowding out the pair’s voices.

Martínez and Prudenskaya headed up a solo quartet that relished the Requiem’s theatrics and poetry alike. As a frequent presence at Houston Grand Opera, Martínez was the only familiar member of the group. In the “Agnus Dei” and other lyrical outpourings, she treated the Requiem’s soprano part to the warmth and fervor she has brought to such roles at HGO as Gounod’s Marguerite and Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San.

When some of the score’s most compelling moments called on the soprano part to soar aloft pianissimo, Martínez’s voice floated right up, free and true. In the last movement’s ethereal a cappella section with the chorus, Martínez’s purity and poise practically embodied the heavenly light she and the chorus were singing about. Yet she also gave the last movement’s outbursts a dose of full-throated, operatic abandon—all the way through the climactic high C.

Prudenskaya’s voice commanded such heft and weight that she could have passed for a contralto, and the opening of the “Liber Scriptus” packed a wallop. One might have wondered if such a gutsy voice could reach as high as it soon needed to—but it could and did, surging vibrantly above the staff at the solo’s climax.

Prudenskaya filled the first stanza of the “Lacrymosa” with gravity. But her voice softened when Verdi’s called for lyricism, and she blended neatly with Martínez in the “Recordare” and “Agnus Dei.”

Tenor Jonathan Tetelman’s voice rang out commandingly from the start. His ringing, resonant tone seemed to come from the world of Il Trovatore, and at times—the big moments in “Ingemisco,” for instance—Tetelman delivered the music with such visceral swagger that it sounded like he was demanding eternal blessedness rather than pleading for it. Yet he sang delicately at times, too, not only in the “Ingemisco” but the prayerful “Hostias.”

The voice of Dmitry Belosselskiy, black and voluminous, seem to reflect death itself at times. Early on, the bass sometimes lagged a bit below pitch. But in “Mors Stupebit,” his mixture of singing and speaking enhanced the music’s chills. And by the explosive “Confutatis,” Belosselskiy had hit his stride.  When the words invoked penitence, his voice drew in and exuded heavy-heartedness; when fear of damnation took over, it surged, filling Jones Hall in a way few voices do.

But Belosselsky, like Tetelman, scaled back and blended with the other soloists in ensembles.

This was the Houston Symphony Chorus’s first performance under interim director Allen Hightower, director of the University of North Texas’ choral program. In addition to singing buoyantly in the “Sanctus,” the group lent shadows and mystery to the Requiem’s opening, added heft to the orchestra in the “Dies Irae,” and complemented the soloists when Verdi’s lyricism took over.

The chorus’s precision and clarity helped the music come alive. But that went overboard in “Te Decet Hymnus,” where lines and rhythms were so over-emphatic that the music sounded more dry than devout.

The Houston Symphony will repeat Verdi’s Requiem at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall.

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