Review: Hugh Wolff leads requiem with Musicians of Minnesota Orchestra

  • Article by: MICHAEL ANTHONY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2014 - 10:57 AM

REVIEW: Mourning was the theme of the evening as conductor Hugh Wolff returned to lead the musicians in Mozart’s Requiem.

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Hugh Wolff

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The performance of Mozart’s Requiem by the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra at Ted Mann Concert Hall on Saturday night, with Hugh Wolff conducting, carried a special poignancy. Mozart wrote this great prayer for the soul of the dead knowing that he himself was dying, and he had to leave its completion to others — his widow needed the fee. Since then, the work has often been used at funeral services of important people, not the least of whom was Napoleon.

It seemed on this occasion that the mourning and the sense of loss weren’t for a particular individual, important or not. Instead, this was a requiem, an extended lament, for the people onstage, the musicians, whose contract battle with the management and the board the past 15 months has done so much damage both to individuals and to musical life in the Twin Cities.

And it’s not only the musicians of the orchestra who have been affected. Onstage with the players was the excellent Minnesota Chorale (led by Kathy Saltzman Romey), whose existence has been thrown into jeopardy, given the group’s official connection to the orchestra.

This isn’t to suggest that the orchestra (nor, for that matter, the Chorale) has given up the ghost. Nor does it mean that an agreement that both musicians and management can live with will never be reached. But something, obviously, has been lost in this entanglement that may be unrecoverable, and surely both audience and musicians have felt it in varying degrees in this series put on by the musicians themselves, and it seemed almost palpable Saturday night.

“Sure, this music tonight reflects our loss,” said flutist Wendy Williams after the concert. “We’ve lost so much the past year.” (The musicians’ blog lists 28 players permanently or temporarily departed, having either retired, resigned or gone on leave.)

There was extra weight, extra emotion, in other words, in both the performances Saturday night and in the audience’s fervent response. The perennially youthful-looking Wolff — he reached 60 last October — who is the former music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, drew detailed, energetic performances all evening from both orchestra and chorus, and he made shrewd programming choices. Conductors lose sleep over the question of what, if anything, to program with Mozart’s Requiem. Wolff picked the right piece: Benjamin Britten’s seldom-heard Sinfonia da Requiem, a work from 1940 whose gentle finale, after a raucous Shostakovich-like “dance of death” scherzo, offers a promise of eternal rest. Britten dedicated the work to the memory of his parents. Wolff led a taut, thoughtful account that needed softer playing in certain parts of the first movement. But the ending was lovely: Williams, Roma Duncan and Adam Kuenzel giving an especially sweet reading of a lullaby for three flutes. A propulsive statement of Beethoven’s Overture to “Coriolanus” served as the bracing curtain-raiser.

For the Mozart, Wolff led a reduced orchestra of about 40 and choral forces twice that number, sustaining good balances throughout.

Generally, he followed current thinking about repertoire of Mozart’s time, this piece in particular — light textures, brisk tempos, varied emotions — rather than the old-style, ponderous, German-Romantic approach, which one can still hear on recordings. There were moments of great visceral effect — the “Rex tremendae,” for example, where Mozart accented the weak beats to heighten the drama — alongside passages of warm-toned consolation from the chorus in the “Hostias” and the gracefully sung “Agnus Dei.” Singing with restrained vibrato, the soloists delivered a smooth vocal blend and adroit solo lines. These were soprano Maria Jette, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, tenor James Taylor and baritone Philip Zawisza.

The musicians gave warm tribute during intermission to Julie Haight-Curran, the revered longtime personnel manager of the orchestra, who retired in December.

 

Michael Anthony writes about music.

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