Giuseppe Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” — a masterwork that starts with a whisper in the cello section and rises to a near-shout in the chorus — is the epitome of liturgical high drama. The best performances of this visceral work unite soloists with soaring, operatic voices with a choir and orchestra sensitive to the full range of dynamics in the piece.
Soprano Latonia Moore, who appeared with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra during a concertized performance of Verdi’s “Aida” last season, led a group of superlative guest artists. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and bass Nathan Stark are relative newcomers to the ASO stage (Stark sang in “Rigoletto” with the Atlanta Opera in February). Anthony Dean Griffey, one of the orchestra’s go-to tenors who last appeared with the group in 2014, rounded out the quartet.
The ASO and ASO Chorus presented the spine-tingling “Requiem” Thursday at Symphony Hall as the kickoff to a celebration of Robert Shaw’s centenary, which will culminate with an April 30, 2016, tribute performance at Carnegie Hall in New York on what would have been the conductor’s 100th birthday. For this first homage concert, the symphony put its best foot, the astounding volunteer choir, forward.
In a sense, Verdi’s “Requiem” is slam-dunk programming at its finest. The orchestra and chorus last performed the 85-minute mass, which is presented without an intermission, to rave reviews in 2010. In 2006, the ensemble took its interpretation to Carnegie Hall, receiving further accolades.
On Thursday, while the guest artists sounded sublime navigating Verdi’s dramatic writing during solos, they gave their best performances when grouped in duos or as a full quartet. One of the risks of booking guest artists required to sing as a unified ensemble is that these solo voices won’t blend well in a group setting. But the extended duets between Moore and Cano — the mezzo emoting a strong, ruddy tone near the bottom of her range, while the soprano nimbly soared above — were the most beautiful sections of singing presented by the ASO so far this year. As soloists, Moore and Cano dazzled, with Moore even playing up the drama in the work, singing her part from memory acting a bit on stage during her final solos.
Throughout, the chorus sang with crispness and a careful attention to music director Robert Spano. While the loud, emphatic choral singing was, of course, impressive, the chorus shined brighter during softer sections throughout the mass. The chorus sounded as bright and full at a near-whisper as it did at an all-out roar. The piece is a bear for the chorus, which seems to be singing nearly all the time, and the singers handled the challenge brilliantly.
The night’s program notes included a letter from Shaw to his chorus from a series of “Requiem” rehearsals in 1977. His advice when performing the piece? The chorus must sing with “vocal splendor and authority” and “soar over the orchestra.” On Thursday night, the ASO Chorus didn’t disappoint.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Nov. 12. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Nov. 14. Tickets: $35-$104. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.