Perfect Pitch: Happy Birthday Verdi

by patrickmccoy

REVIEW: The Washington Chorus celebrated the music of Giuseppe Verdi in grand style.

By Patrick D. McCoy


Baritone Stephen Salters and soprano Othalie Graham sing a duet together with Julian Wachner conducting.
(Photo by Patrick D. McCoy)

To mark the anniversary of the composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, The Washington Chorus celebrated his musical accomplishments through a series of events culminating with “The Essential Verdi” concert at The Kennedy Center. Among those offerings was a panel discussion on the composer’s life and work moderated by composer Joel Friedman with panelists including Washington Post Classical Music columnist Anne Midgette and scholar Saul Lilienstein. The compendium of events were under the gracious patronage of His Excellency, Italian Amb. Claudio Bisongierno.

To bring a bit more  festivity to the monumental concert, The Washington Chorus preceded the concert with a gala at the Italian Embassy with distinguished guests including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Antonio Scalia and Nancy Pelosi.  Concert soloists Corinne Winters and Isachaah Savage performed arias from a few of the composer’s beloved operas and guests enjoyed a live interview between Nina Totenberg and Justice Ginsberg about her passion for opera and the music world. Ginsberg shared that it was because of  the influence of her music teacher Henry Lewis that she has taken such an interest in music and has a deep appreciation for the arts.  Lewis was the first African American to lead an American symphony orchestra.

One of conductor Julian Wachner‘s hallmarks during his tenure as music director of The Washington Chorus has been the programming of the “Essential Series.” Each season, Wachner has taken the chorus through an exploration of music representative of one single composer. Last year the focus of the program was Wagner; this season it is the music of Verdi. The goal of the program has always been to give off the effect of sitting in one’s living room, selecting all the favorites to listen to, and this concert was just that. Beginning with the famed “Va pensiero” the chorus moved forward in mostly unison singing, punctuated by the brass and marked by sweeping crescendos. Selected from the opera “Nabucco,” it is often used in movies, commercials and was a welcomed delight to the concert attendee who is not regularly a of connoisseur of classical music as starting with a familiar tune seemed to set a tone of accessibility. Favorites abounded throughout the Verdi’s “greatest hits” concert as Wachner informally referred to it.

In the tenor aria “La donna è mobile” tenor John McVeigh sang with a beautiful well-phrased vocal line, if not necessarily heft. In the “Libera Me,” soprano Corinne Winters showcased the clarity of her upper register as well as the copper-like radiance of her lower range. Oddly, the reverent ending of the “Libera me” segued into the secular “Anvil Chorus” from “Il trovatore” which somewhat aborted the heavenly moment so effectively set up by Winters and the chorus. “Noi Siamo zigarelle” from “La traviata”  introduced two new voices to the Washington audience:  mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo, who offered a dark voluptuous mezzo that carried well into the hall, and bass Peter Volpe, whose voice was gloriously resonate. Baritone Stephen Salters, a Washington Chorus favorite, offered a warm contour that added inner depth to the trio singing. Perhaps one of the most show-stopping moments was the bravura performance of the aria “Sempre libera” by Winters. She negotiated the florid passages of the vocal line without a hint of the demands of the music and her performance was, rightly so, rewarded with rousing applause.

Bringing the first half of the Verdi spectacular to its close was the famed ensemble and drinking song from Violetta’s party featuring Winters, Robert Baker (tenor), McVeigh, Volpe, Rafalo and Salters; Volpe and Rafalo in particular were vocal powerhouses throughout the scene. Opening the second half was the “Te Deum” from “Four Sacred Pieces.”  The chorus and orchestra, under Wachner’s masterful hands, briefly transported the listener into the nave of a vast cathedral.  From the unison chant-like melodies of the work to the full forte singing punctuated by brass, this choral offering was a nice contrast to the other more familiar works on the program.  And what could be a grander ending to the concert than the arrival of Aida? Joining the ensemble of soloists were soprano Othalie Graham, who sang the title role in Act 2 scene 2, and tenor Savage as Radamus.  In the ensemble, the audience only got a glimpses of their talent. Both were featured in “The Essential Wagner” last season and were the toast of  that concert.

The only disappointment of the evening was that the aforementioned soloists were not positioned or cast in such a way that showcased the full capacity of their voices. Overall, the evening conceived by Wachner and The Washington Chorus was a wonderful essay of Verdi’s music. With any large undertaking, it is hard to hit all the bases,  but this ode to Verdi from The Washington Chorus was nothing short of a homerun.

Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanitiesPatrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. , where he serves on the alumni board of directors.  He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price.  McCoy  has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our  time, including , Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens,  Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence  Brownlee.  He is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC.   Listen to these interviews and others  at Blog Talk Radio.  Additionally, he is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.  McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

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