Mozart’s “Requiem” remained unfinished at his death. But the music that he did leave behind has driven others to fulfill his vision.
The Cape Symphony Orchestra undertook the “Requiem” Sunday afternoon at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, performing a completion by pianist and scholar Robert Levin. Levin’s is just one of many attempts at finishing the work—Mozart’s last. It includes brilliant extensions from mere fragments that the composer left, while remaining true to the textures and sound-world that make Mozart Mozart.
Some approach greatness with a kind of timid respect. Not Robert Levin. Years of study convinced him of certain traits in Mozart’s music, traits that he found lacking in the standard completion of the “Requiem.” His alterations are best understood and debated by musicologists and other Mozart specialists, but audiences benefit directly from his insights.
CSO music director Jung-Ho Pak transformed this experience from a scholarly one to a personal one, cajoling the Cambridge-based Levin to agree to a video interview to discuss his completion. During a pre-performance viewing of the interview, Levin’s words ranged from details of the project, to expansive views of faith and great art, and his ideas drew gasps from the audience.
The performance itself showcased Levin’s ideas. Pak engaged one of the Boston area’s most distinguished choruses, Musica Sacra, prepared by Mary Beekman, to join the orchestra and four soloists.
From its very beginning—a suggestive opening with a few strings and bassoon—the “Requiem” feels like an intimate discussion with eternity. Mozart imagined humans struggling in a human way with greater forces, and Levin finds a way to let this happen. A simple description of his far-ranging completion would be to say he left the score as transparent as possible, not getting in the way of Mozart’s ideas.
Thomas Jones (baritone), Michael Kuhn (tenor), Krista River (alto) and Chelsea Basler (soprano) were the soloists. Pak set the two ensembles in the front of the stage, with a Mozart-sized orchestra to his left, the chorus and soloists to his right. It brought the sound out closer to the listeners, allowing the singers and instrumentalists to bring the quietest tones to life, with clarity.
Mozart shifts the focus from chorus to various soloists to solo quartet with ease. The opening Kyrie brings out chorus and orchestra. The tremendous Tuba mirum introduces the soloists one at at time—Jones, then Kuhn, then River, then Basler—before yoking them together as a quartet, backed with gorgeous trombone line.
A violin figure, doubling soprano in the Recordare, weaves both so closely together you could hardly tell one from the other. Most notable from a music history standpoint, the new fugal treatment of the Amen that Levin composed to close the Lacrimosa, has Basler dominating simple but alluring lines.
Pak had discussed that fugue, first in its fragmented form, and then in Levin’s completion, in his introductory remarks, and that infused a strong sense of Levin’s intentions and his bold musicianship into the performance.
Musica Sacra sang blended—not in part sections, but with the four voice ranges randomly mixed. With about three dozen singers, this turns all of them into soloists in a way—not able to rely on proximity for pitches, but forced to listen closely to their own sound, putting an emphasis on clarity, not power. The results were deeply moving.
Each of the soloists sang beautifully alone, but truly stood out for their own blend when realizing Mozart’s (and Levin’s) quartet writing—as in the Tuba mirum, the Recordare, and in the Benedictus. The orchestra played with reserve, and attention to the vocalists.
The program began with a musical moment of remembrance for the massacre of Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh last weekend. Principal cellist Jacques Lee Wood performed Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer,” from “Jewish Life,” with care and emotion. The orchestra then introduced a Mozart mood with selections from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”
The next Cape Symphony Orchestra performance will be Holiday on the Cape, with the CSO joined by the Chatham Chorale, the Vintage Vocal Quartet, the Cape Conservatory Dancers, West Bend Music’s Celtic Roots, the Kanaley School of Irish Dance, Sarah Ford Marchio on bagpipes and Josh Delaney, storyteller. There will be two performances each on Nov. 30, Dec. 1 and 2. Visit www.capesymphony.org or call 508-362-1111.