The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: After hearing a memorably beautiful performance of Verdi’s operatic Requiem, The Ear asks: Why do people enjoy singing and playing instruments together as a group? Let’s hear from the performers themselves. | April 27, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night, I attended a performance of Verdi’s operatic Requiem given by the University of Wisconsin Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra with four soloists, all under the baton of UW choral director Beverly Taylor.

It was a special event – it always is – because it marked the first time the two large groups got to perform together in Overture Center’s trademark Overture Hall, which is beautifully designed and built, and has terrific acoustics.

It is also a necessary venue for this piece. When all the forces are assembled they are too big for the usual venue, Mills Hall, where the 120-year-old campus and community choir usually performs with the UW Chamber and Symphony Orchestras.

Indeed, when the magnificent Verdi Requiem has been done before, it  was not even in Mills but in the larger Stock Pavilion, the livestock barn or cow palace where the last time at least one soloist had an allergic reactions to the sawdust and straw. And it is not a good thing when a soloist’s throat starts closing up during a performance.

Anyway, there were no problems on that score this time.

It wasn’t a full house of 2,000 but it was close to it — a large audience, especially considering how many other events, including the Wisconsin Film Festival, were going on at the same time.

And I found much I liked about the performance. It was beautiful and moving, in part for personal reasons that many of us have but which I don’t want to write about. Great art should touch you personally. Then it becomes even greater, no?

I loved the way the two massive groups and four soloists were kept in balance, yet dialogued with each other and complemented each other. This memorial is a cathedral of sound that has lasted for good reason.

I especially loved the softer parts and the way conductor Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) shaped the sonic texture and quietness at  the comforting opening and in the etherial Lux Aeterna section near the end.

But I also loved the loud and operatically dramatic parts like the “Dies Irae.” I am convinced more than ever than Hell must indeed sound like loud brass and a beaten bass drum (at bottom) – though one can also argue that Verdi, pretty much a non-believer, might have been using that same combination not only to portray the Day of Wrath but also, as a friend remarked, to protest against the whole notion of Death and a Day of Judgment.

All the soloists — soprano Shannon Prickett, mezzo-soprano Marion Dry, tenor Aldo Perrelli and bass-baritone Tony Dillon — sang with beautiful tone and seemed pretty well matched to my ears.

But occasionally soprano Shannon Prickett (below) really soared above the others. You always felt she had even more volume to draw on, more force to spare; that she never strained or felt stretched to her limit, let alone beyond it. And her tone was consistently lovely.

The 180-voice chorus, mixed and not separated into parts, performed very well and stayed together to full effect, as did the 90-piece student orchestra.

Both helped you to appreciate what absolute mastery Verdi had over how to write effectively both for the human voice, singly or en masse, and for instruments, both alone and in combination.

But truth be told, the part of the performance that I really liked best. with something akin to envy, was watching the various singers and instrumentalists perform and seeing how much enjoyment they took from performing.

More than football, basketball or soccer, singing in a chorus or playing in an orchestra is my kind of team sport. I just don’t play either.

It was clear that everyone was having a terrific time up on the stage in front of family, friends and strangers as they brought to life an indisputably great choral and instrumental masterpiece.

They were having what I like to call “PROFOUND FUN.”

So more than a detailed review, what I really want to use today’s post for is to simply ask: Why do singers and instrumentalists like to perform and make music together as a group?

Is it because it brings you closer to great art and allows you to make great art, which you otherwise couldn’t do on your own?

Is it because you make friends and acquaintances you otherwise wouldn’t meet?

Is it because you feel emotionally and physically better by singing and performing?

Is it because you get a sense of belonging and solidarity?

Is it because the simple act of singing or playing gives you physical pleasure?

I suspect it is all of these and more. Certainly I have heard reviews, writers and analysts explain it in those ways. And I know what makes me feel good os a listener.

But I want to hear more directly, right from the horse’s mouth – from the Requiem’s Mouth, so to speak.

So I am writing and posting this in the hope that some or even many of the performers, vocal and instrumental, will post a comment about what they took out of the rehearsals and performance, and will explain first-hand what they so love about making music together as a group.

It can be a short comment, like a Tweet, or  a longer one – whatever the writer wants to say.

And since I am being deliberately derelict as a reviewer, here are links to other, more in-depth and more opinionated reviews.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

And here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV’s website


  1. I remember singing Bach for the first time with a chorus and orchestra and and feeling that I was in a living tapestry that moved and changed in time and space. One was singing, listening, thinking and feeling all at once. The only thing better was to have the entire concert memorized so there was no score, only interpretation in the exact moment for one assembly of listeners.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — April 29, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  2. Thank you for your kind review of the Verdi Requiem, and subsequent invitation to write “from inside” the UW Choral Union.

    I’ve been going around the block with Choral Union for many years. Attached is something I wrote about ten years ago, after singing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” It’s from a sermon–I’m a retired pastor–the connection between theology and music has been one of my pre-occupations for a long time.

    Thanks for your blog–keep up the good work!


    The grace of God is always a gift that surprises…grace with power to transform!

    I want to unpack the notion of the sound of grace
    by saying something about music…about an experience of hearing music as if from the inside.

    Last weekend I sang with the UW Choral Union in
    a performance of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio “Elijah.”

    What was slightly different was that this time we sang it in “mixed-up” formation. (Maybe you thought that already about singers—that they are a little bit mixed-up!)

    But what I mean is that for this performance,
    sopranos, altos, tenors and basses of the Choral Union did not stand grouped together as usual, but literally were “mixed up.” So, rather than have all the basses clumped, or all the sopranos
    (and so forth, like choirs usually do), for this performance, Beverly Taylor, our director, MIXED UP the sopranos with the basses, the altos with the tenors–to get a better blend and better tuning.

    Now, most of the time, singing “mixed up” like that produced no unusual effects…each sang his or her own part as usual. But on one number in particular,
    suddenly something more was going on!

    At that point in the story of the oratorio, the prophet Elijah has suffered terrible setbacks and has fled dejected into the desert. In despair he sings, “It is enough—O Lord, take away my life.” (I Kings 19:4)

    The chorus follows, singing angelic encouragement: “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes, to the mountains, whence cometh help”—words from the psalms (Psalm 121:1-2). What made this so striking all of a sudden is that this section is sung by WOMEN’S VOICES UNACCOMPANIED—so for a couple minutes, all of us basses and tenors—mixed in among sopranos and altos–had nothing of our own to sing…we had only to stand silently and listen.

    The effect was stunning—like being “surrounded by music” or “swimming in music”—as if I were “inside of the music” somehow (quite unlike listening with ear buds, which is more like “music coming from inside of me”).

    Listening “inside the music” like that, everything was both more expressive and impressive:
    melody, harmony, rhythm, color–all combined to make the words speak even more persuasively:
    “Thy help cometh from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Thy foot shall not be moved. Thy keeper will never slumber. Lift thine eyes…to the mountains!” (Psalm 121:2-4)

    No question about it: THIS was God’s message for Elijah—and for us all–to hear and trust—
    grace, uniquely multiplied not only by the music itself, but also by the way we were singing it.

    I suggest that worship is similar. We may not be in utter despair like Elijah, but often we come together overwhelmed by “busyness” or confusion…by questions or fear. Through our worship we are swept up together into God’s great song of love and grace—grace all around us…drawing us in… urging us to trust.

    It is this presence of God that refreshes and renews—permeating the air (like that angelic chorus) with grace—as Psalm 121 goes on: “Thy help cometh FROM THE LORD…Thy keeper WILL NEVER SLUMBER. Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes TO THE MOUNTAINS, whence cometh HELP!”

    No matter how out of control things may seem, we remember that GOD “slumbers not”—that GOD’S HELP is near—that in life or in death, God is with us.

    Do not let your ears grow dull…hear the strong grace of God as if from the inside. Let your ears be filled with the sound of it. Expect to be SURPRISED—again and again—by the grace of God—by its song all around us!

    Comment by David J. Susan — April 27, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

  3. I’ve forgotten if I’ve played trombone in Verdi’s Requiem when I was @ Interlochen’s Nat. Music Camp/Arts Academy, but perhaps. What I’m sure of is I did do Mozart’s Requiem while a grad asst. @ NIU. The reason I enjoy playing in symphonies, wind ensembles, br 5tets, recorder consorts is because there’s an intellectual element required for good musicianship and a physical element needed for technical mastery. While playing in Japan’s Machida Phil, Dir. Aratani did Beethoven’s Ninth by memory & nailed it. Achievements like that brings everything together to produce a musical entity of profound effect. It’s a mental challenge coupled with a physical result that makes for extraordinary satisfaction.

    Comment by buppanasu — April 27, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

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