The Gothic contours of a landmark Oklahoma City church will reverberate with a musical masterwork of epic proportions as 350 singers and orchestral musicians join forces for the rarely heard Requiem by Hector Berlioz. Musicians from Oklahoma City University will perform the work at 4 p.m. April 3 at First Presbyterian Church, 1001 N.W. 25th St. Admission is free to the public.
The event is part of the inauguration celebration of Robert Henry, who will be installed as the 17th president of OCU on April 6. The performance is also featured on the First Presbyterian’s 2011 Kemp Concert Series.
“This concert has been three years in the planning,” said Mark Parker, dean of OCU’s Wanda L. Bass School of Music. “Many great works of art have attempted to shed light on the eternal questions of human experience. Berlioz’s Requiem may well be the pinnacle of artistic expression, examining questions of life and death, judgment day and the afterlife.”
Conductor Randi Von Ellefson will explain the significance of the piece during a pre-concert talk at 3 p.m.
“It’s probably the most colossal setting of any requiem, ever,” Ellefson said. “When people experience this piece, they are simply transported into the seraphic — really light and beautiful. It is so other-worldly, so transporting, and really shakes you from your foundations as a human being.”
Berlioz’s 10-movement Requiem (“Grande Messe des Morts,” Op. 5) derives its text from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass. The piece was composed in 1837 as a memorial for the soldiers who died in the July 1830 French Revolution.
It was to become Berlioz’s favorite composition. He wrote to a friend, “If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the ‘Messe des Morts.’”
Created for the cavernous St. Louis of the Invalides Cathedral in Paris, Berlioz wrote the score for a massive chorus and orchestra, including a dozen timpani individually tuned to play thunder chords along with four choirs of surround-sound brass.
“Even the dullest minds,” the poet Heinrich Heine said of the first performance, in 1837, “were carried away by the force of the genius.”
Berlioz enjoyed contrasting thunderous, crashing sections with periods of quiet. Only one vocal soloist is called for, near the end. A tenor, echoed by the chorus, sings against a halo of four solo violins.
On April 3, the featured soloist will be tenor Jeffrey Picón. A member of the OCU voice faculty, Picón is a concert and opera singer in a diverse selection of repertoire. Highlights of recent seasons include his New York City Opera debut in performances of “Carmen,” “Cendrillon,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca,” and touring with Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein, as tenor soloist on an orchestral “Bernstein on Broadway” program.
The concert’s late afternoon start time will highlight First Presbyterian Church’s dozens of historic stained glass windows, filling the sanctuary with color and light.
The work will feature more than 200 singers from the Bass School of Music, and two dozen basses and tenors from Canterbury Choral Society. Ellefson and Judith Willoughby are rehearsing the singers. Rehearsals of the massive 100-piece OCU Symphony Orchestra are under the direction of Benjamin Nilles.
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