On Saturday, March 25, the Presbyterian College Choir will perform Verdi’s Requiem with the Augusta Choral Society at the Sacred Heart Cultural Center in Augusta, Ga. This performance will be the finale of an eventful performance season for the choir, who recently completed a performance tour of churches and cathedrals in Vienna, Prague and Budapest, but it also comes as the culmination of an eventful career for the choir’s longtime director Dr. Porter Stokes, who will retire after the 2017-2018 academic year.
“Conducting the Verdi Requiem in a performance is an once-in-a-lifetime event for most choral directors,” said Stokes, “and, for many choral directors, it’s a never-in-a-lifetime event. More frequently, we are asked to prepare our choirs so that an ‘orchestral’ director can conduct it, so I am savoring every minute of the preparation and looking forward to the performance.”
This isn’t Stokes’ first time conducting a Requiem (a liturgical death mass written by an elite composer for voice and orchestra) with the PC Choir. In 2015, the choir performed Mozart’s Requiem, also with the Augusta choral society, for which Stokes serves as Creative Director. In both instances, Stokes has spent the months preceding the performances travelling to Augusta to rehearse with the society and separately rehearsing the PC ensemble in Clinton. On the weekend of the performance, the two choirs join together for rehearsal. Preparation aside, however, Stokes pointed out significant differences between the two works.
“The Mozart Requiem setting, conceivably, could serve in a liturgical setting; that is, within the context of a service of a Requiem Mass. Mostly today, it’s performed as a concert piece. The Verdi is a concert piece and is modeled after his operative style, sometimes, perhaps, constrained by his sensitivities to Roman expectations of propriety, but nonetheless highly Romantic. The challenge with Verdi is to fully realize its operatic nature, and that takes an entirely different sensibility than for the Mozart. I think a good illustration would be to compare directing a church anthem with a very good choir and conducting a Broadway set with a good orchestra and cast. The two are that different,” he said.
The Verdi Requiem is certainly atypical of PC Choir’s normal repertoire. The choir’s typical performance season consists of a Christmas show with traditional choral selections (including collaborations with the college’s orchestra and handbell choir), as well as a spring tour throughout churches in the South. This year, the choir also performed a concert that featured patriotic music.
Datie Rogers, a senior in PC Choir, remarked on the value of performing a piece well outside of the group’s comfort zone.
“Performing the Verdi Requiem is definitely a daunting task, considering its level of difficulty and the limited amount of time that we have had to practice it,” said Rogers. “However, it is such an amazing piece of music, and it’s worth the toil of practicing for months when you consider what the performance is going to be like, with full orchestra and over 100 singers. Not to mention, we will be singing it in such a beautiful space. I am really grateful as a senior to have this opportunity to really challenge ourselves as a group and I am getting very excited as we realize that it is, at last, all coming together.”
Much like the Requiem will be the last major PC Choir performance for seniors like Rogers, Stokes counts the performance as climactic for his own career.
“I will conduct other choral/orchestral pieces in my life,” he said, “but I will never again have a chance to do anything this comprehensive, magnificent and majestic. It just won’t be possible. In many ways, this is a career high-point for me, and sharing this moment with this PC Choir is bittersweet and poignant.”
For those interested in attending, tickets for the performance are currently on sale online at http://www.augustacs.org/store/c1/Featured_Products.html. Stokes predicts a sellout.