PEACEFUL REST: Symphony explores Fauré’s ‘up-side’ of death

By Paul Horsley

Just because Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem uses standard Catholic liturgy as texts doesn’t mean its messages are strictly Christian or even inordinately religious. Indeed its message of consolation is universal, and its gentler approach to death stands in stark contrast to that of some of the more severe Requiems in the repertoire. “The sacred nature of this work goes much deeper than its liturgical function,” says world-renowned Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, who directs the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus in Fauré’s masterpiece this November 22nd-24th. “It’s something that is enjoyable, understandable. It’s something that can touch you in much more than one way.” Fauré was himself not even a believer, Bernard adds, and his Requiem is notable for its concentration on hopefulness, even joy. “This Requiem is something very different, when you look at what texts Fauré decided to leave aside. … There’s no Dies Irae, so there’s no big moment of theatrical wrath as in the Verdi Requiem, for instance. He discarded everything that was kind of too frightful, most of it anyway, and concentrated on the humanistic side.”

Conductor Bernard Labadie

Conductor Bernard Labadie

As such, performing this Requiem in a cathedral is by no means a requirement – in fact the work’s brilliant transparency can easily turn muddy in a too-resonant church. The Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall is an ideal venue, says Bernard, a frequent guest of the Symphony and, before that, the Friends of Chamber Music. “The spiritual experience of this music is absolutely achievable within the context of a concert, as long as there are minimal conditions to be preserved: the quality of silence, the quality of the acoustics, and respect.” (Respect meaning no glittery gowns that that might suggest an operatic gala.)

For soprano soloist Shannon Mercer, also a Canada native, the Fauré is “not a sad piece, it’s a hopeful piece. It’s about anticipation, and being excited about what will happen after death.” One of Shannon’s solos in the Requiem is the “Pie Jesu,” one of Fauré’s most gorgeous musical moments. Written for a boy treble in the composer’s original small-scale version, the part was recast for a woman’s voice when the orchestration was filled out to employ a whole symphony orchestra. Still, this brief piece must contain clarity and precision, Shannon says, and its mood retains an inward, personal quality. Each soprano has to find her own way in, she says, based partly on “your own relationship to God and what that means.”

Shannon Mercer

Soprano Shannon Mercer

Both Bernard and Shannon are known for their work in early music and oratorio (as is baritone Joshua Hopkins, who joins them), and they say this experience can inform even music from the mid- and late-19th century, including that of Fauré. “There’s no point in the history of music where you can draw a line and say, ‘After that, performance practice doesn’t have an influence,’ ” Bernard says. “It’s a mindset: It’s simply knowing that in order to better serve music and composers and modern audiences, you have to know your sources, you have to not take for granted that what’s been done in the past 20, 30, 40, 50 years is the right thing, but go directly to the sources and make up your own mind. … It frees your mind and opens up doors. … And I believe that approach can benefit a lot of [19th-century] repertoire.”

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Fauré’s Requiem is performed November 22nd-24th at the Kauffman Center. The program also features a suite from Rameau’s Dardanus and Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony. Call 816-471-0400 or see kcsymphony.org. Find Paul Horsley at phorsley@sbcglobal.net or on Facebook (paul.horsley.501).