The fist of God

Only the locals do work on the Berlioz Requiem at La Jolla Symphony

Tuba mirum bitches.
  • Tuba mirum bitches.

Beecham - Berlioz: VII. Offertorium

We could say, for comparison's sake, that Mozart's Dies Irae is something like an 18th Century cavalry charge and Verdi's Dies Irae is like a choreographed shock and awe campaign. Berlioz's Dies Irae? Berlioz is like the glowing, radioactive fist of God descending on the world with total, nuclear, annihilation.

The extra brass and percussion had the audience flanked on both sides while the orchestra and chorus crowded the stage. The La Jolla Symphony concert of Berlioz's Requiem was sold out on Sunday afternoon, March 15. It was a good performance of a difficult piece.

The “big bang” was big and “bangy” and that’s exactly as it should be. For those who don’t know, the Berlioz Requiem uses 38 additional pieces of brass for the Dies Irae/Tuba Mirum. 38 pieces of brass is a decent-sized middle school band.

I would have to say that on the whole the chorus did a fine job. However, and this is a much larger issue, the sound was consistently spread. This “spread” sound is an epidemic amongst all but the very finest choruses.

What is a spread sound? When there is no height to the sound then the tone begins to spread and starts to sound flat, even if it isn’t technically flat.

Real quick, say “eeeee.” Now say “aaaaaaaah.” We tend to feel “eee” horizontally and “aaah” vertically. A singer, at any level, wants to avoid feeling the tone horizontally and always feel the tone vertically.

The chorus went vertical from time to time, and when they did, the sound sparkled and had life. When the tone was spread, the sound was dull and lacking energy. The energy had nothing to do with effort. Folks were doing work up there but a spread tone will never, ever, sound energized.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge my brothers in the tenor section. Berlioz, ever the experimentalist, didn’t write an alto line in the chorus part. There is first and second soprano but no alto lin — except there is an alto line.

The first tenors end up singing what amounts to an alto line. By the time we get to the Lacrymosa and the opening line for the first tenors, things are beginning to fray. I’ve got to hand it to the tenor section for singing that bear three days in a row.

Now, how about that tenor soloist? The Sanctus (holy) section has a potentially beautiful tenor solo — potentially. This sanctus was less “holy” and more “holy crap, I think that guy is going to spew blood all over the first three rows.” (Maybe that should be the “splash zone”).

This is going to get brutal. You see, if a soloist is terrible, but is a local artist, then I can at least say something such as, “It’s always nice to see local singers get an opportunity.” In this case, I can’t do that.

I also ratchet up the critique when a singer is obviously based on the East Coast, judging by their bio, and is brought to San Diego to sing what amounts to about three minutes of music.

Tenor John Tiranno was awful. He sounded unprepared. The solo is easy. The tune is simple and lyrical. However, the solo is also infinitely difficult because of the way it sits in the tenor voice.

It sounded to me that Mr. Tiranno had not worked the piece into his voice sufficiently enough to perform in public. It was painful and disappointing. La Jolla has consistently done a wonderful job using San Diego and Southern California soloists. I hope they return to that practice.

I was surprised to find that my favorite section of this performance was the Offertorium. The strings were gorgeous and the woodwinds — oh, the woodwinds. They were remarkable as they bubbled to the surface with their brook of arpeggios midway through.

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