If you’ve ever wanted to stand on the abyss that leads one way to heaven and the other to hell, and live to tell about it, this is your chance.  Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, The San Antonio Symphony, four talented soloists, and a record ensemble of choral singers are performing Giuseppe Verdi‘s “Requiem.”

It’s Verdi’s bicentennial, and his greatest work is being performed by orchestras and choirs everywhere. In San Antonio, there are performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Majestic Theater.

A packed stage: Rehearsal night at The Majestic Theatre with the San Antonio Symphony, four operatic soloists and 210 choral singers from three ensembles: San Antonio Mastersingers, UTSA Concert Choir and the Trinity University Choir. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Verdi’s “opera in ecclesiastical robes,” as one contemporary dubbed it, is as close to Judgment Day as any living human will get and live to talk about.  Experienced as a live performance, “Requiem” brings to life what terrified me as an impressionable Catholic school boy in the Cold War 1950s. Dramatic visions of heaven and hell are summoned. Those in attendance at the Majestic will feel transported to the edge by the Symphony, and then returned safely to terra firma.

The work calls for a double choir, but there will be three in the house. The choral directors at UTSA and Trinity University have combined their respective student ensembles with the San Antonio Mastersingers to place 210 singers on stage behind the full orchestra and the four soloists.

Dress rehearsal: Symphony musicians and a record ensemble of choral singers prepare Thursday evening. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“We believe this will surpass any previous performance in the 74-year history of the San Antonio Symphony in terms of the total number of singers on stage,” said David Filner, the Symphony’s interim CEO. “It will be huge.”

For student singers, the opportunity to appear on stage with the Symphony in such a seminal work will be a capstone experience.

“Delving into our local music history, I learned that Trinity singers performed regularly with the Symphony back in the ’60s, so last year we renewed that relationship,” said Gary Seighman, Trinity’s director of choral activities, who moved to San Antonio four years ago. “This performance with Maestro Lang-Lessing and the San Antonio Symphony will be something these students look back on for the rest of their lives.”

Verdi’s work, he added, “is both monumental and intricate. Great range is required, and real stamina.” His students, Seighman said, are ready.

John Silantien has served for more than 30 years as the musical director of the San Antonio Mastersingers, founded 69 years ago.

“My very first work with the Mastersingers, back in 1983, was Verdi’s ‘Requiem,’” Silantien said. “It was like yesterday, unforgettable: Verdi captures all the fire and brimstone. It’s the last trumpets blowing.”

Silantien also serves as a professor of music and choral director at UTSA. He and Seighman have been rehearsing their respective ensembles since January. They brought the three groups together several weeks ago to practice as a single entity at University Presbyterian Church near the Trinity campus where Silantien serves as choral music director. Dressed in black this weekend, the singers will form one great ensemble.

The visual performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” will prove to be almost as stunning as the audio. More than 30 bows punctuate rhythm, and the bass drummer carries the most dramatic moments with elaborate, controlled movements. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Managing 300 people on a single stage and bringing them together in absolute sync is a challenge, but we share the same vision with the choral groups so I don’t see a big problem,” Lang-Lessing said with modest understatement. “In the end, to perform great music is always a treat and a privilege.”

“Requiem” is an epic funeral Mass, but don’t mistake it for a church service. It’s unsurpassed for sheer drama and intensity, an operatic work where, literally, all hell breaks loose. This is a work that belongs in a packed performance hall, not a church. There are quiet moments, especially at the start, but don’t be lulled. By the time trumpets sound from the Majestic Theater’s balcony – “The Last Trumpets” in the “Wrath of God” movement –  the energy and intensity coming from Lang-Lessing and all those under his direction will be felt in every seat in the house.

Two of four “Last Trumpets” (left) rehearse their integral role in the dramatic back-and-forth sequence between their balcony perch and the powerful orchestra on the main stage. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Verdi faced death again and again during his lifetime,” Lang-Lessing said. “It was very tragic: He lost his young daughter and then his wife. He was still young, but struggled to regain his creativity. This is his expression of that experience.”

Out of that pain, and the sudden and added loss of longtime friends, Verdi turned to producing his own “Messa da Requiem,” one unlike any other before it. For people who will experience the work for the first time this weekend, here is an informative take on Verdi’s “Opera in Disguise,” with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon and Marion Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The nine-minute piece includes musical and choral excerpts.

Soprano soloist Ana María Martínez rehearses for her performance in Verdi’s “Requiem” at The Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Soprano Ana María Martínez is one of four soloists who will perform here this weekend, returning to San Antonio for the first time since she appeared alongside Placido Domingo at the AT&T Center in June 2011. A world-class talent who has toured extensively with Domingo and Andrea Bocelli, Martínez has performed most of the great operatic soprano roles at leading halls and performing arts centers around the world.

Martínez will be joined by fellow soloists, mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet, tenor Dimitri Pittas, and baritone Lester Lynch.

Lang-Lessing and Martinez first met in 2002 at the Houston Opera when he conducted “La Boheme” and she sang the soprano lead. Lang-Lessing’s connection to San Antonio was still years away, but the two formed a fast friendship.

“I came to San Antonio to rehearse today, and went to lunch with Sebastian and spent the whole time laughing,” she said. “Sebastian is rare, a true breath of fresh air. He’s witty and at the same time an extraordinarily sensitive musician. He’s quite a treasure, San Antonio.”

Lang-Lessing returns the praise.

“Ana Maria is a wonderful artist with a voice from god, and she’s a great friend,” he said. “And the other soloists also are special: Lester Lynch was here for my first Pops as music director, and we performed ‘Porgy and Bess’ together. Dimitri and Geraldine are new friends in my musical family. I’m really excited about having them here in San Antonio.”

From left: Soprano Ana María Martínez, mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet, Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, tenor Dimitri Pittas, and baritone Lester Lynch. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That kind of shared personal affinity translates on  stage to a more intensely shared performance.

Off stage, Martínez should be regarded as more than a world-class musical talent visiting for a weekend production. As a Latina artist of great accomplishment, she’s also a role model for young Latina women here – especially young at-risk women – who might aspire to a musical education as a path to opportunity. Her story, from her roots in Puerto Rico to world fame, is an inspiring one.

Soprano Ana María Martínez. Photo by Tom Specht.

“Music is one of the most uplifting art forms, and its has inspired people for all the ages,” Martínez said.  “Music ignites the imagination. There is so much research out there that shows beyond any doubt that it stimulates the brain, learning and absorption of material in school. Music should be an integral part of education, especially for at-risk students. Music keeps kids out of trouble and helps them realize new opportunities.”

Martinez, whose childhood years took her from Puerto Rico to New York City and back, benefitted from parents who placed a high value on education, each earning PhDs in their respective fields of music and psychology while encouraging their daughter to reach high. Yet they chose to let her work her way through elite undergraduate and graduate music schools.

“I am so proud that I worked my way through school, sometimes holding several jobs,” Martínez said. “My message to other young women is this: It’s hard, but all that sacrifice is worth it. It pays off.”

Of related interest to those who attend the Symphony’s live performance will be the television broadcast of the film, “Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance,” which chronicles the lives of Jewish prisoners at Terazín, a Nazi ghetto prison and slave labor camp in the Czech Republic where imprisoned Czech conductor Rafael Schächter taught a group of 150 Jewish inmates to sing Verdi’s “Requiem” as an expression of survival and defiance in the face of their Nazis captors. The 87-minute film airs three more times in the coming days on KLRN-TV.

It’s an added and coincidental bonus to the weekend program, but nothing can equal the experience of a live performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” by a full orchestra and choral ensemble.

The bass drummer makes note of San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s prescriptions during rehearsal. Photo by Iris DImmick.

Click here for tickets, which range from $12-$92, or call 210-554-1010.

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group performs communications consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony, but does not publish any sponsored stories on the Rivard Report site.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.

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