The opening word in Latin stabs like a dagger: “Rex!” the chorus sings. And again, and again: “Rex!”
The lyric in Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor is one of those moments in choral music that cuts to the bone. Though the words of the “Rex tremendae” movement speak of a “King of awesome majesty who freely saves those worthy of salvation,” the moment is not one of happy praise but of desperate submission — of urgent beseeching — from a piteous sinner. There is eternity at stake, and you feel the tension. I imagined the slightest of chills descending upon the Shaghoian Hall as the internal temperature of each audience member notched down a fraction of a degree. The opening phrases of the movement are that cold and beautiful.
The moment was one of my favorites in Friday’s all-Mozart program featuring the Fresno Philharmonic and the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale. With passion and precision, the orchestra and singers in the Requiem — the major work on the program — delivered an inspiring rendition of the iconic piece. The concert is repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
I adore Zadie Smith. Which explains why I’ve been waiting to use this amazing passage from her glorious novel “On Beauty.” The central family in the book attends a free outdoor concert of Mozart’s Requiem. (One of the main characters in the book is a professor who rails against “beauty” and doesn’t like Mozart, but he’s dragged there reluctantly. He also cheated on his wife.) Here’s how the wife describes the experience of the music:
Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless, faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgement. The men sing first, and their judgement is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is a debate — you realize that now. The judgement is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be.
I’ve read a lot about the Requiem, but something about this prose is so affecting, so intense, so specific yet universal, that it almost made me gasp. It is beautiful writing, which is fitting for a novel so titled.
The Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Community Chorus tackle the monumental work at the Shaghoian Hall tonight, Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be there tonight. Can’t wait.
Besides tonight’s must-see concert starring that little lady with the giant voice, Kristin Chenoweth …
1. A REBORN DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM
Fresno will only be the fourth city so far to get to see the newly reborn main company of the Dance Theatre Harlem, which had to shut down in 2004 for economic reasons. The performance is 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. I give you the whole story in Friday’s 7 cover story. [Details]
1. HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT
Fresno State’s theater department tackles an exciting and risky musical: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which opens tonight. I write about the show in today’s 7 cover story. [Details]
I crammed in a lot:
Friday: Took my parents, who were in town, to see the Good Company Players annual holiday-themed play at the 2nd Space Theatre. This year’s title is “A Christmas Story,” based on the now cult 1983 film, and it’s a hoot. When the kid takes the “double-dog-dare-you” challenge and sticks his tongue to the frozen metal pole, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my mom laugh so hard.
Saturday: I put on my thinking cap for The New Ensemble’s brainy “Copenhagen,” about the meeting of two famous physicists during World War II. The play was a nice balance of science and the “uncertainty principle” of human nature. If you like theater about ideas, this Tony Award-winning play will spark a lot of neurons. (I wrote an advance story about the production in Friday’s 7 section.)
Sunday: The community room at Woodward Park Regional Library was crammed for the first table reading ever held by Children’s Musical Theaterworks. The kid-themed musical is titled “Yo, Vikings!”, and CMT will stage the West Coast premiere of the show in March. (For background, see my Sunday column and my earlier Beehive interview with artistic director Skyler Gray.) The show was charming and the well-prepared cast first-rate at Sunday’s reading — what voices! — and it was fun imagining what the production will look like while listening to the stage directions, dialogue and songs. Above: Daniel Rodriguez, left, Hirsh Bhatt, Sarah Welles, Catriona Fray, Amber Lewis, Hannah Moser, Bryce Moser and Randy Kohlruss.
There were lots of other great weekend events as well. (I heard from a reader who said the Fresno Community Chorus performance of the Brahms Requiem on Sunday sold out the Shaghoian Hall.) What fun did you have?
1. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN BRAHMS
Talk about setting yourself up for a powerful experience: the acclaimed acoustics of Shaghoian Hall. An immense chorus of 145 singers. A 41-piece orchestra. And an impassioned conductor who has waited for years for the opportunity to perform the work. All this comes together in the Fresno Community Chorus 2:30 p.m. Sunday performance of the Brahms Requiem. I interview conductor Anna Hamre in Friday’s 7 section.
Heather already summed it up: This weekend is positively jam-packed. I’ve already told you about “The Glass Menagerie” at Fresno State and the new family play “The Boy Who Stole the Stars” at Broken Leg Stage. Here are five more:
Fresno’s Ashley Taylor — who will be performing in the “Sing Out, Louise!” musical review benefit Saturday at the First Congregational Church, says it best on Facebook:
Fair warning– there will be so much talent in one room, it might create some sort of vortex of talent. But the safest place is always inside the vortex.
I talk with Scott Hancock, artistic director of Fresno’s Cutting Edge Theater Project, which is staging the benefit, about the concert in Friday’s issue of 7.
It’s what every choral conductor fears most: At the last minute, one of your soloists isn’t ready to go on.
That was the situation Friday morning for Fresno Community Chorus conductor Anna Hamre. Her bass soloist for the Mozart Requiem, Anthony Radford, had started feeling ill on Thursday. By Friday, he didn’t have a voice at all. And the Sunday concert was just three days away.
That’s when a young father of 2 — a Navy man from Lemoore named Thomas Drew Duncan — saved the day.
Chris Darling, the chorus manager, writes:
Anna immediately began calling all over the state to try to find a replacement. All the singers we called who could have stepped in were already booked. The part calls for a low “G” and Anna thought to herself, “who do I know locally that can sing a low G?” She remembered a young, Navy man who had auditioned for the choir, had a wonderful voice and could definitely sing the low G. She called him, asked him to take a look at it, he agreed, she drove to Lemoore to rehearse with him, and Voila!