Sunday, June 18, 2006

Verdi Requiem

Recently, my brother was given tickets to a performance of the Verdi Requiem at San Francisco's Davies Hall, and kindly invited us to come along. I've heard it performed before, but this was something special. Fabulous soloists, 170-plus voices in the SF Symphony Chorus, great brass players in the SF Symphony Orchestra.

You'd think that in San Francisco, where nine-tenths of the people seem fundamentally opposed to most of what the Catholic Church stands for, a Mass setting would be treated with some disdain. Not so on that night. The audience was sternly warned on their way in by large placards proclaiming that there would be no intermission in the 100-minute performance, and that no one leaving their seat would be re-admitted to the hall. Not only did the audience treat the music with reverence, minding their manners by not applauding between movements, but the conductor (James Conlon) held the silence after the last plaintive Libera me for a full ten seconds -- and not the slightest sound was heard throughout the enormous hall. Then, of course, the place erupted for seven or eight minutes of cheering.

Of course, it was reverence for Verdi's music, not for the Church or even for God, that animated most patrons that night. But here's the great thing about Christian art of all kinds: it penetrates the soul even in the face of stark unbelief. No human being can escape unchanged from the hurricane of Verdi's treatment of the Dies Irae, all the more so when it returns by surprise near the end, when you've been lulled by several minutes of soft pleas for mercy. There in the program were the Latin and English side by side, and I wonder how many hearts were troubled -- rightly so -- by the unfamiliar sentiments, or by these disturbing lines alone:

Lacrymosa dies illa
Qui resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.

(Lamentable is the day
on which the guilty shall arise
from the ashes to be judged.)

And I wonder how many felt drawn by this wish:

Sed signifer Sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini eius.

But let Saint Michael, the standard-bearer,
bring them forth into the holy light,
which you once promised
to Abraham and his seed.