After more than half an hour of intense fervor and devotional music, a soprano cries out, “in te speravi,” on a single note, supported by a mournful trumpet. This call of “I trust” in the closing bars of Verdi’s “Quattro pezzi sacri” is quickly echoed by a full, powerful chorus of voices in a triumphant, celebratory series of chords. The voices die out and quiet, introspective strings enter, begging for reflection and deep thought.
With the final notes on Thursday at Symphony Hall, where the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and ASO Chorus closed the evening with Verdi’s “Four Sacred Songs,” contemplating the sheer magnificence of the combined ensemble seemed automatic.
The extreme dynamic contrasts at the end of Verdi’s “Te Deum” are typical of the range of emotion in this operatic church composition. But while the orchestra gets the final say to close the work, Verdi’s choral work, under the baton of ASO Music Director Robert Spano, is tailor-made for the ASO Chorus. Like a bespoke garment, the Verdi accentuates one of the chorus’s best attributes: a full-bodied ensemble blend throughout all dynamic levels.
Written over an eight-year period by Verdi during the last gasp of the 19th century, “Four Sacred Pieces” highlights the ASO Chorus’s prodigious strengths in four short movements totaling less than 40 minutes. With the orchestra mostly in a supporting role – fleshing out a melodic line here, injecting another layer of counterpoint there – the chorus is showcased throughout. From the full-chorus a cappella “Ave Maria” to the opening of “Laudi alla Vergine,” featuring only the women of the chorus, this is a showstopper of a solemn sacred work.
The Verdi hasn’t been performed by the ASO on a classical subscription concert since 1990, when William Fred Scott led the orchestra and chorus. It’s tempting to call for repeat ASO Chorus appearances as often as possible, but these choral pieces are monolithic works and no doubt require intense preparation for the volunteer ensemble. While this was Spano’s first time conducting the chorus this year, the ensemble was last on the stage for a subscription performance during Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in October, conducted by Donald Runnicles. The Chorus next appears at Symphony Hall in April with guest conductor Thomas Søndergård in a highly anticipated double bill of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein.
(Spano welcomes back the chorus for the last concerts of the season.)
The concert opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” – a gratifying breath of late classicism played with precision by the orchestra. After the near boisterous tenor of the first movement, the restraint in the languid second movement was striking. Here, the ASO took its time, relishing the spiraling violin lines and the woodwind filigree. The ensemble passed musical themes through the orchestra with ease, meticulously matching the shape and attack of each phrase.
Mozart wrote the fourth movement as a carefree romp that places an emphatic exclamation point on the work. While it begins at a whisper in the violins, frolicking along at a strong clip, the music quickly ascends to a full-throated shout. The orchestra played with a balanced, joyous sound that made this oft-performed symphony a delight to hear.
The night, however, belonged to the ASO Chorus. During a symphony season, there are ebbs and flows, benchmark performances surrounded by concerts that are intriguing but may not be must-see performances. When the ASO Chorus takes the Symphony Hall stage, the concert is rarely anything other than a must-attend performance.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Feb. 21. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Feb. 23. Sold out. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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