SALT LAKE SYMPHONY and UTAH VOICES, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, May 18

Many composers turn to sacred subjects at some point in their careers. Even those who aren’t particularly religious seem to find a need to do this, as if filling a void or perhaps as insurance in the afterlife. Johannes Brahms wrote his German Requiem; Richard Wagner’s last opera was the ceremonial Parsifal. Franz Liszt of course outdid them all by taking minor orders in the Catholic Church and spending the last years of his life mainly in Rome.

Giuseppe Verdi also felt compelled to venture into the spiritual realm with his Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces), short choral/orchestral works he wrote at the very end of his life.

Three of the pieces are settings of liturgical texts and one is a setting of a short section from Dante’s Paradiso. Verdi didn’t envision them as a set, but they work well grouped together.

These actually aren’t the first sacred works Verdi wrote – he set the Requiem to music a number of years earlier. But what the theatrical Requiem lacks in spirituality is more than compensated for in the settings of the Ave Maria and the Laudi alla Vergine Maria (from the Paradiso). These are heartfelt and gorgeously expressive settings, the former for a cappella choir, the latter for unaccompanied women’s voices.

The Stabat Mater and parts of the Te Deum, on the other hand, remind one of the dramatics of the Requiem. Taken as a whole, though, the four pieces complement each other quite well.

The Salt Lake Symphony, in collaboration with Utah Voices, closed out its season Saturday with an all-Verdi program commemorating the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. The concert opened with the Quattro Pezzi Sacri conducted by Utah Voices’ music director Michael Huff. The choir did a wonderful job with these pieces, singing with nuance and delicately phrased lyricism in the Ave Maria and the Laudi alla Vergine Maria. In the other two, Huff and his singers brought out the robustness and dramatic power of the music. These were well conceived and executed interpretations.

The second half of the program, conducted by Salt Lake Symphony music director Robert Baldwin, was focused on some of Verdi’s best known operatic excerpts, including a highly emphatic and vibrant account of the Triumphal March from Aïda.

Also in this half, the chorus gave a poignant account of “Va pensiero” from Nabucco and a rousing rendition of the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore (the latter conducted by Salt Lake Symphony assistant conductor Lawrence Spell). Baldwin and the orchestra also played the overture from La forza del destino.

As a special treat, soprano Melissa Heath joined Baldwin and the orchestra for an impassioned and beautifully expressed and subtly nuanced account of the aria “Pace, pace” from La forza del destino.

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About Edward Reichel

Edward Reichel, author, writer and composer, has been covering the classical music scene in Utah since 1997. For many years he served as the primary music critic for the Deseret News. He has also written for a number of publications, including Chamber Music Magazine, OPERA Magazine, 15 Bytes, Park City Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He can be reached at Reichel Recommends is also on Twitter @ReichelArts.

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