Soloists help Stutzmann, ASO Chorus achieve a profound Verdi’s ‘Requiem’

South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha performs with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and ASO Chorus Thursday at Symphony Hall. The program will be offered twice this weekend.

Credit: Photo by Rand Line

Credit: Photo by Rand Line

South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha performs with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and ASO Chorus Thursday at Symphony Hall. The program will be offered twice this weekend.

Last week at Symphony Hall, Marc Bamuthi Joseph explained a flash of the spirit. He felt it when writing the libretto to “brea(d)th,” a brutally honest and searching tribute to George Floyd composed by Carlos Simon. Metabolizing the world through art, he told the audience before the ASO debut of Simon’s work, happens over time but also all at once, as a lighting bolt.

Flashes of the spirit appeared often on Thursday when the ASO Chorus, orchestra and a quartet of peerless singers brought a work to Symphony Hall that has been a through line in the history of the organization. It was the first time music director Nathalie Stutzmann had programmed Giuseppe Verdi’s 85-minute “Requiem” in Atlanta, and she assembled quite a cast of vocalists for her first performance — South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha joined renowned Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang and bass Ilia Kazakov, a rising Russian operatic star in his U.S. debut.

Verdi’s “Requiem” is in the marrow of the ASO Chorus. In the organization, full of decades-long volunteers, the teachings of Robert Shaw run deep (aided by Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie, Shaw’s right hand in the chorus back in the day). Former music director Robert Spano and former principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles carried this aesthetic forward in their own ways. The main question Thursday was how Stutzmann’s approach might clash with institutional memory and how longtime patrons would react to any stylistic changes. Could the work retain flashes of brilliance in a new interpretation?

Stutzmann set a slow, intentional pace to open the work, allowing the music to carefully progress. This slow tempo at times felt stagnant; a bit of forward momentum would have been welcome. But this deliberate tempo brilliantly set up what was to come: It made the sudden quickening of the pace during the second movement, “Dies Irae,” almost alarming, the controlled increase to fire-and-brimstone dynamics awe-inspiring. It will be hard to forget that first full-throated chord by the ASO Chorus, the symphony swirling beneath them. Voices edged with vengeance, the chorus spit out a warning of the coming day of wrath.

All the praise in the world has been heaped upon the ASO Chorus, and rightly so. Their appearances are almost always packed-house occasions, and the organization certainly knows how to support one of its best assets with world-class guest artists. The ensemble sounded wonderful on Thursday, responding quickly to Stutzmann’s every change in dynamic and tempo, mirroring their phrasing to the path her hands carved through the air. While recent performances have met a mixed reception, Stutzmann and the chorus now seem to be operating on one wavelength.

The quartet of guest artists shined throughout, but none more brightly than Rangwanasha. In the “Libera Me,” the last section of the requiem, she began with an a cappella incantation, her voice taking on a dark, full shading. She ascended, moments later, to a porcelain high note, only to immediately drop down to the depths of her register. This vocal flexibility, a tone lively and thrilling throughout her entire range, stood out among a group of vocalists that elevated the evening from memorable to exquisite.

When singing as a group, the four voices blended as if the vocalists had been singing together their entire lives — even more remarkable when you consider two of the four were not the originally programmed singers. (In fact, one of them, Chang arrived for the first ASO rehearsal earlier this week straight from the airport.) When Gubanova joined Rangwanasha for a duet, time stopped. Both Rangwanasha and Kazakov are still at the early stages of their singing careers. Hopefully, Stutzmann will welcome them back soon.


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25. $39-$131. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,