Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 14, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

La Forza del Destino

One of the marks of a truly professional performance

is the aura that everything is under control. The conductor brings

down his baton and the music unrolls with verve and nuance. But it’s

not really all that seamless. A telephone conversation with Mark

Laycock,

music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, reveals the

tenacity,

ingenuity, and faith he found necessary to lubricate the process of

bringing Verdi’s Requiem to the stage this weekend.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra performs Verdi’s dramatic masterpiece

in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, March 17, at 8 p.m., and Sunday,

March 18, at 4 p.m. The musical forces consist of the orchestra,

70-some

strong; the 150 voices of Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club, the chorus

of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and four distinguished soloists.

Laycock’s

adroitness came into play in lining up the soloists. Soprano Sharon

Sweet, mezz-soprano Barbara Dever, and bass Arthur Woodley are three

of the program’s four soloists.

I spoke to Laycock just two weeks before the first performance of

the Requiem. It was the morning after he learned that Francisco

Casanova,

the scheduled tenor, would be unable to appear in Princeton because

of contractual obligations at the Metropolitan Opera (a promotion,

in fact). Inexplicably composed and unruffled, Laycock, in full

command

of his storytelling skills, was eager to tell his tale.

"Casanova was not our original tenor," he began. "The

original tenor was Marcello Bedoni. I had heard him sing about two

years ago in Italy and I went crazy over him. Every time he sang,

he brought the house down. He’s a protege of Pavarotti, and his voice

quality is virtually identical to Pavarotti’s, though it’s not as

big. People absolutely melt when they hear him."

"Bedoni speaks very little English, but we made arrangements for

him to come. `Si, si.’ He was eager to do it. I saw him in December.

Then in January there was a note from his agent, Remigio Pereira.

The agent had double-booked him to make a debut in Palermo and to

be in Princeton. He wrote because Bedoni was too embarrassed to write

himself. He offered to try to replace Marcello with two or three other

tenors on his list and offered to send sound clips by E-mail. I told

him that I preferred to deal with the Met in New York. After all,

it’s only an hour away."

"So all of a sudden the singer that took this [Requiem] beyond

anything you could hear in New York was not available. Sharon Sweet

and Barbara Dever and Arthur Woodley are wonderful, but Bedoni has

not yet sung here. I was broken hearted. Marcello [Bedoni] wanted

to come to Princeton at another time and sing something else. But

you hear certain people’s voices in certain pieces, and he was perfect

for the Verdi Requiem."

With Bedoni out of the picture, Laycock invited the

Met’s Francisco Casanova to do the tenor solo. "Francisco was

happy to come," Laycock says. "Singers love to sing the Verdi

Requiem. Sharon and Barbara and Arthur thought it was wonderful to

have him. Then I got a call yesterday. The Met had moved Casanova

to the principal tenor role for Verdi’s `Nabucco.’ They also have

him singing `Trovatore’ the same week. Princeton would be impossible.

Casanova phoned Dever in a panic. `I can’t do Princeton,’ he told

her. But there were no hard feelings. He had wanted to do the

Requiem."

"Yesterday morning I fired off an E-mail to Bedoni’s manager,"

the storyteller continued. In an 11:25 a.m. message Laycock pursued

what he called "the unlikely event" that Bedoni’s plans had

changed, and added, "He is still by far my preference for the

Requiem." Laycock’s closing sentence, imploring destiny with two

exclamation points, invoked the name of a Verdi opera. "Oh, La

Forza del Destino!!" he concluded.

Within five hours Pereira replied, "La forza del destino sta con

te — (The force of destiny is with you!) — Verdi must be

listening

in on us. Marcello’s Palermo debut has been changed to April.

Unfortunately,

in Italy decisions are usually made at the absolute last minute and

nobody knows anything, especially artists who remain in limbo until

the very end. Marcello is available for the Requiem and would love

to sing with you."

Minutes later Laycock E-mailed back, "Bravo!," adding, in

Italian, "my heart is singing!" "It’s a fairy tale

story,"

he says. "It was a stroke of fate."

At last, the soloists for Princeton Symphony’s Verdi Requiem emerge

as Sharon Sweet, soprano; Barbara Dever, mezzo soprano; Marcello

Bedoni,

tenor; and Arthur Woodley, bass. Sweet is on the Met’s roster and

has an international career. A Princeton resident, whose children

attend Princeton High School, she often participates in musical events

in Princeton. Barbara Dever, a colleague of Sweet’s at the Met, is

also known throughout the world. She has been heard locally in a

lieder

recital at Rutgers’ SummerFest. Bedoni is an international prizewinner

with wide performing experience. Woodley appears in opera, as an

orchestral

soloist, and as a recitalist, throughout the United States. "With

this cast," says Laycock, "I would drive three or four hours

to hear the Verdi Requiem. It’s an amazing assemblage of

soloists."

I wonder whether the solo parts are equally important and equally

difficult. I’m curious about whether it is harder to replace the tenor

than the other soloists. Laycock’s reply stresses the balance of the

four soloists, rather than their individual roles.

"First," he says, "each solo part requires virtuosity.

The parts are of equal importance, though they’re used differently.

However, there are duos, a trio, and places where the entire solo

quartet sing together, so the voices must blend and be balanced not

just in their virtuosity but also their quality. Which leads to the

tenor."

Then he talks about the individual’s effect on the mix. "If you

think of baking a cake, all the ingredients are important and if you

leave out one the cake fails. However, what makes a chef or baker

extraordinary is the ability to be able to take those ingredients

and make something special through the kind of ingredients used and

unexpected surprises — like a little more of this, or substituting

maple syrup for sugar. So it is with replacing a tenor. It is true

that a special tenor is rarer than a special soprano — hence `The

Three Tenors,’ though any extraordinary voice has the capacity to

make the listener melt into a puddle of ecstasy. The difference is

in the voice quality, that unexplainable color, or purity that is

individual to each singer, or violinist, for that matter."

"In this regard, Marcello is without peer. While our original

second choice was undoubtedly world class and would have left the

audience totally enthralled, the particular voice quality of this

tenor adds such a special ingredient to the cake, that people will

be left with an even sweeter aftertaste. As one of our concertmasters,

a strikingly beautiful and attractive woman, said when she heard

Marcello

sing, `I wanted to marry him on the spot!’"

Still, Laycock is cautious about bringing the children

to the Requiem. "It’s 80 minutes without an intermission,"

he says. "The content would not prohibit bringing children. But

the piece could get very long even for a mature seven or

eight-year-old."

Laycock is an expert at music for children both because of his family

with its two sons and because of his stewardship of children’s

concerts

at the Princeton Symphony, as well as at the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra,

where this season he was appointed the assistant conductor.

For Laycock the Verdi Requiem outshines even Beethoven’s hour-long

Ninth Symphony. "In the Ninth Symphony three of the movements

are instrumental," he says, "and the chorus and soloists don’t

join in until the fourth movement. In the Requiem the chorus and

soloists

are there from the beginning. It’s like combining the most exciting

Verdi opera and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s an incredible

spectacle.

The offstage trumpets are a masterful touch. They’re thrilling.

They’re

the original surround sound. It’s a highly dramatic effect."

Laycock

refuses to reveal where in the domed Richardson Auditorium he will

locate the trumpets for their solo, preferring to keep their placement

a surprise.

Looking back on his exposure to the Requiem, Laycock spotlights the

visceral appeal of the piece. "There are certain pieces that feel

as if you’ve always known them," he says. "The Verdi Requiem

feels as if it’s in your blood." He has played the piece many

times as a freelance violist. In addition, he prepared the Montreal

Symphony for its performance of the piece under Charles Dutoit.

Preparing to conduct the Princeton performances of the Requiem,

Laycock

led the regular rehearsal of the Mendelssohn Club about three weeks

before the PSO concert. After reviewing a Mendelssohn Club score with

its performance markings indicated, Laycock had sent it back to the

conductor with the changes he wanted to make. "With a chorus,"

he says, "you’re always dealing with the length of notes and where

to place the consonants. The length of note varies because of

sonorities

and interpretation. My emphasis with the chorus had to do with using

Italianate, instead of ecclesiastical Latin. [Laycock favors soft

sounds for the consonants "c" and "g."] The piece becomes

much more passionate that way and listeners don’t feel so far removed

from work. They’re not watching, but drawn into the piece."

To shift to high gear the week before performance, Laycock has

scheduled

three rehearsals and a special session with the soloists. "Those

rehearsals are highly intense and highly productive," he says.

"There’s very little room for error. There’s no time by the water

cooler." Tuesday comes a rehearsal with orchestra only.

"That’s

so the orchestra understands the textures, sonorities, and tempos

that I want. They get an overview of the piece before we add the

chorus."

Wednesday afternoon Laycock and the soloists rehearse with a pianist

to coordinate the solo parts. "The soloists will not have sung

together," he says. "They have magnificent voices, but they

need to make adjustments for balance, and for blending their vocal

qualities." Wednesday evening follows a rehearsal with soloists

and orchestra. "The solo quartet needs to hear and feel the

orchestra.

Finally, a dress rehearsal with chorus added comes on Thursday

evening.

Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day, comes the first performance of the piece.

I ask Laycock what lies behind scheduling the Verdi Requiem for that

day, and, with typical quickness, he produces a very good answer.

"Well, none of the soloists are Irish," he says. Then, he

triumphantly adds, "Why not? Verdi means green. We’re not only

wearing the green. We’re celebrating it." Indeed. One of the

motives

for scheduling the Requiem this season is that 2001 is the 100th

anniversary

of Verdi’s death.

— Elaine Strauss

Verdi `Requiem’, Princeton Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson

Auditorium, 609-497-0020. $25 & $28; senior $22 & $24. Saturday,

March 17, 8 p.m. , and Sunday, March 18, 4 p.m.


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