San Diego Symphony presents Verdi’s Requiem; conductor Rafael Payare excited about ‘amazing journey’

San Diego Symphony maestro Rafael Payare
San Diego Symphony maestro Rafael Payare conducts Verdi’s Requiem Oct. 1 and 2 at the Rady Shell.
(Courtesy of J. Henry Fair)

Verdi’s Requiem, the composer’s epic, dramatic, mood-swinging treatment of an ancient Catholic funeral mass, is a significant milestone for any conductor.

“It’s one of those pieces that you study and study, then, of course, one day you’ll be able to conduct it,” said San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare. “I’m very happy I’m going to do it with this wonderful orchestra for the first time.”

Payare, a native of Venezuela, has conducted around the world. But this will be his first time conducting Verdi’s Requiem — anywhere.

“We did it in Venezuela a couple of times when I played French horn,” he said, speaking from Canada, where he is the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare
San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare conducts his first Verdi Requiem at the Rady Shell on Oct. 1 and 2.
(Courtesy of Gary Payne)

“The Requiem is always such an experience. The whole piece — how Verdi conceived it and put it together — is such an amazing journey. The chorus part is fantastic, the vocal part is brilliant and it’s very much Verdi at the top of his game with the orchestral part. So, it’s some kind of wonderful compound all together.”

Payare and the San Diego Symphony will perform Verdi’s Requiem at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Saturday and Oct. 2 with four vocal soloists and the San Diego Master Chorale.

The symphony performed in a San Diego Opera production of Verdi’s Requiem in 2014 and has performed it only one other time in this century, in November 2004 at Copley Symphony Hall.

Verdi’s first foray into the Requiem was inspired by the death of composer Gioachino Rossini. Verdi and some of his colleagues composed sections of it. But for bureaucratic reasons — yes, even in the 1800s — the project fizzled out.

When Alessandro Manzoni, a famous Italian novelist and poet, died in 1873, Verdi revived the Requiem. He started with the already written section: the now-beloved “Libera me.” The grieving Verdi, who was decidedly unreligious, wanted to honor Manzoni, a devout Catholic, whom he deeply admired.

Verdi’s Requiem was performed for the first time a year after Manzoni’s death. Since debuting in a church then, it is now typically performed in concert halls and opera houses. No doubt, the composer could not have envisioned his Requiem being performed at a bayside venue like the Rady Shell.

Payare recalled discussing the Requiem a while back with San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

“The Shell wasn’t even ready,” he said of the now 1-year-old Shell. “We were saying it would be amazing for the audience to hear the Requiem surrounded by water, seeing the beautiful sunset and the stars. I’m very excited!”

The San Diego Master Chorale at the Rady Shell
The San Diego Master Chorale will join the San Diego Symphony for the Verdi Requiem at the Rady Shell on Oct. 1 and 2.
(Courtesy of Gary Payne)

Operatic, dramatic, intimate

The Requiem concerts at Rady Shell will feature four top-notch vocalists: soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Limmie Pulliam and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov. Also featured is the San Diego Master Chorale — at 100 voices strong.

“The chorus plays such a prominent role in Verdi’s Requiem. That’s why it’s beloved by so many singers,” said John Russell, the chorale’s music director. “Verdi breaks the mold of other composers who wrote requiems.”

Because of the respiratory nature of COVID, pandemic restrictions struck vocalists even harder than other musicians.

“It took a while to get back into our routine,” Russell recalled. “Singing with masks was better than not singing, but it’s not ideal. Getting everybody back in the swing was a challenge, but a welcome one.”

Preparing the (mask-optional) singers for the Requiem takes work. Russell begins with the trickier fugues so that the singers develop “muscle memory.” By the end of rehearsals, the singers have the endurance for this musical marathon.

“The Requiem is dramatic, like an opera, and intimate, like a motet for church music,” Russell noted. “The Santos fugue is nonstop, fast-paced and invigorating. There is drama because of the vast changes in texture, volume and orchestration.”

The joyous “Santos” — a complicated fugue in eight parts — is followed by “Agnus Dei,” sung by angelic female voices. The Requiem’s last section is “Libera me,” the first music Verdi wrote for this work.

In it, the soprano sings: “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death ... when you will come to judge the world by fire.”

How do these divergent moods and musical styles coalesce?

“That’s the beauty of Verdi,” Payare exclaimed. “He was amazing. He knew exactly what needed to be done. The way he orchestrated the orchestra was very effective. With some composers, they’re fantastic but the score needs help. With Verdi, he’s one of those composers that everything is there. The Requiem has a kind of operatic dramaturgy that all goes together. Full resolve.”

How does Payare help the orchestra best convey Verdi’s exploration of sorrow, anger and joy?

“Unfortunately, probably 99, if not 100, percent of the orchestra’s members have experienced some kind of loss in their lives,” he replied.

“Those are emotions we have experienced, or we know someone close to us who has. To pull that out is not complicated. The world has seen two years of pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, so everything takes on an extra dimension.

“The mastery of Verdi is that he gets you to the feeling that you have experienced. You have dealt with loss in a different way so when you come to play your instrument it becomes somehow cathartic. So, it’s much easier.

“I remember when I played it on French horn, it was very intense. Playing it and listening to it from beginning to end, you become a completely different person.”

San Diego Symphony: Payare leads Verdi’s Requiem

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday. 5 p.m. Oct. 2

Where: Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, San Diego

Tickets: Saturday: $55-$90. Sunday: $25-$108

Phone: (619) 235-0804


Wood is a freelance writer in San Diego.