By Steven Lieberman
I know that Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi is smiling with pleasure from the beyond as The Verdi Chorus presented its fall gala concerts this past weekend in honor of his 200th birthday at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica.
The program, titled Viva Verdi, was dedicated solely to his works and included scenes and arias from many of his masterpieces.
The night kicked-off with President Thelma Sherman and chorus consultant and musicologist Dr. Aurelio de la Vega welcoming the audience and then bringing the chorus out on stage to begin the performance.
After director Anne Marie Ketchum took the conductor’s platform and her long-time accompanist Laraine Ann Madden sat down at the piano, Ms. Ketchum raised her hands and led the chorus in the opening number, “Viva Italia!” from La Battaglia Di Legando. A perfect piece to ignite the show and sung with verve and vigor.
An internationally-renowned quartet of soloists was also assembled for this celebration led by return of fan favorites soprano Shana Blake Hill and baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez. They were joined by tenor Benjamin Bongers and mezzo-soprano Nandani Sinha who would go on to become the new fan favorite after her debut with the chorus.
Here are some of the highlights from the program.
Ms. Hill and her rendition of “Salce! Salce! and “Ave Maria” from Otello in duet with section leader Megan Gillespie. Ms. Hill’s grace and elevated voice singing this sweet song left the audience awe-struck.
The many layers of “Spuntato ecco il di” from Don Carlo and capably sung by the chorus. One could sense their rejoicing. And Garden Scene: “Nei giardin del bello” from the same opera and performed by Ms. Sinha along with section leaders Nicole Renee Bouffard, VanNessa Hulme, Laura Schmidt, Judy Tran Gallego, Ms. Gillespie, Anne-Marie Reyes, and the Women’s Chorus. Ms. Sinha was a bright spot that lit up the stage.
In La Traviata, which closed out the first half of the show, the Act II Finale performed by all four soloists and section leaders Gabriel Paredes, Mauricio A. Palma II, DeReau K. Farrar (assistant to the director), and the Chorus.
The second half of the program opened with the famous Anvil Chorus from IL Trovatore. This is one of the Verdi Chorus’ signature pieces…and they did not disappoint. This was followed by Ms. Sinha making Giuseppe proud with her rendition of “Strida la vampa.”
Then it was Mr. Gomez’ turn to take the spotlight with the Men’s Chorus performing “Il balen del suo sorriso,” also from Trovatore. His sterling voice resonated throughout the acoustically-sound edifice.
Then section leaders Babatunde Akinboboye and Robert Norman joined the four soloists on “E deggio e posso crederlo?” Mr. Akinboboye, a baritone, was a Western Regional Finalist in the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and he showed us why.
In Aida, which closed the program, Ms. Ketchum had Ms. Hulme sing “Possente Ftah” with the Chorus. She did so brilliantly. Then, Ms. Hill (“O patria mia”) took the stage followed by Ms. Sinha (“Chi mai fra gl’inni’”) and their voices again filled the church with splendid glory.
The concert climaxed with the Grand March as all fours soloists along with Mr. Akinboboye, Mr. Palma, and the Chorus took center stage and accompanied by an excellent four-man brass section. The trumpets and horns helped to fill the church with joy.
After thunderous applause and flower bouquets handed out, the action moved to the adjacent hall for some more festivities.
The post-concert party featured The Walter Fox Singers (section leaders) singing various Verdi snippets and Ms. Ketchum treating the crowd with a surprise song. All hosted by none other than renowned musicologist Alan Chapman of KUSC. The cake was cut, the Italian Consulate General spoke and everybody broke into Va Piensero, Verdi’s masterpiece from Nabucco.
“Go, thoughts, on golden wings…”
Save the date for their spring 2014 concerts on May 3rd and 4th. For more information, go to www.verdichorus.org.