In Boston Philharmonic’s Verdi Requiem, a Prayer for Peace

Conductor Benjamin Zander prepares for a performance for the ages.

Photo courtesy BPO

Photo courtesy BPO

By his own calculations, this could very well be the last time Benjamin Zander conducts the Verdi Requiem.

In the midst of a torrential April shower, I arrive at his Cambridge home and find him in his study, at the helm of his beloved surround-sound system, playing the Requiem’s “Dies Irae” movement at full, apocalyptic blast. That day of wrath/Shall consume the world in ashes, the chorus shrieks, and the window panes tremble in response. Without expression, he gives me a double thumbs-up.

“Now, calculating based on actuary tables, this is probably my last performance of it,” he says after the music is turned down and the tea is fixed. He sees me frown at that. “Well, it’s very likely. I’m 77, and it’s not likely I’ll get to it.”

The white-haired Englishman isn’t being macabre by saying so. For Zander, the legendary piece has been a guidepost for his career. In 1981, just two years after founding the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the Verdi Requiem offered him to opportunity to conduct at Symphony Hall. He performed it again at a gala in 1992, though he doesn’t usually count that one. This weekend at Symphony Hall, he’ll take another crack at it.

“I was just thinking—if you went to Rome, or you went to Italy, what would you absolutely, under no circumstances miss? The Sistine Chapel,” Zander says. “You have to go. You can’t say, ‘I went to Rome.’ ‘Oh did you? Did you see the Sistine—’ ‘No, I couldn’t be bothered.’ Everyone goes to the Sistine Chapel, which is interesting. You go to the Louvre and you have to see the Mona Lisa. Verdi Requiem is like that. It’s an absolute pinnacle piece.”

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) was an intensely patriotic man, deeply sympathetic to the Risorgimento movement that sought to unify Italy, then divided into quarreling nation-states, each with their own language. The origin of the Requiem can be traced not to Verdi’s piety—or lack thereof, as he was hardly a religious man—but his steadfast admiration for two of his fellow countrymen.

Upon the 1968 death of Gioachino Rossini, the most popular opera composer in the word at the time, Verdi tried organizing a patchwork mass to honor him, to be performed at his old haunt, Bologna’s Basilica of San Petronio. He invited 13 composers to write their own parts, while he would compose the final requiem. But the Messa per Rossini, trammeled by “tremendous political hassles,” was not performed until more than century later.

Instead, Verdi repurposed the requiem five years later, placing it at the beginning of his mass for Alessandro Manzoni, a man of “gigantic stature, both as a writer, as a novelist, and as a human being with impeccable integrity and values,” Zander says. For this reason, the Verdi Requiem is also called his “Manzoni Mass.”

“What he was doing was celebrating Italy, celebrating heroism, philosophical integrity, the value that he lived by,” Zander says. “It’s not so much a religious thing. He takes the religious text, which of course every Roman Catholic and every Italian knew intimately, and wrote this piece.” In this way, Verdi used the liturgy as a unifying force.

A performance of the Verdi Requiem is only as good as its four soloists, so Zander’s enlisted the help of soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Julia Gertseva, tenor William Davenport, and bass Daniel Borowski. He’s also conducting seven rehearsals—something he says he’s never done before—to ensure that the soloists, chorus, and orchestra of more than 200 people are prepared to navigate every perilous swing of emotion. He’s even using his score from 1981.

He flips through its outsized pages. Nearly every note, phrase, and dynamic is annotated in black marker or colored pencil to make abundantly clear what’s at stake here:

“A ghastly, real fear that they won’t get peace and light, and you won’t either.”
“Like Michelangelo.”
“The force is almost unbearable.”
“The wings of angels in violent gusts.”
“A dizzy slide into blackness.”
“It mustn’t be comfortable.”
“An individual’s terror on Judgment Day.”

“I was in a very dramatic frame of mind,” he laughs at himself. The BPO will return to Symphony Hall for the concert, which Zanders says proves integral to an immaculate performance of the uniquely secular requiem mass.

“It’s all very well to go to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel. But imagine if the Sistine Chapel were in a warehouse somewhere. It’s the whole thing: the Vatican, Rome, the statues, the atmosphere, the cafes. It’s the whole thing, and Symphony Hall is that,” Zander says of the 116-year-old structure. “I’m coming to the conclusion that Symphony Hall is really the greatest concert hall in the world. The competition is Carnegie Hall, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Philharmonie in Berlin, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. And I’ve now conducted in all those halls, plus Symphony Hall. No doubt in my mind, Symphony Hall is the best.”

“Isn’t that exciting?”

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on Sunday, April 24, at 3 p.m. Tickets are available here.