In nine or 10 years, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra might bring back Verdi's breathtaking Requiem.

But it's not likely it will come close to matching Friday night's performance, which was part of the inaugural Tucson Desert Song Festival. Friday night had all the makings of once-in-a-lifetime, from the star-powered soloists to the splendid performance of the orchestra, led by conductor George Hanson.

In short, it was wonderful fun for the audience that nearly filled the Music Hall. Can you say "wonderful fun" in the same breath as requiem?

Hanson, who was at the podium when the orchestra last performed the Verdi Requiem nine years ago, set the bar high for the orchestra's next stab at the piece. He performed the 83-minute piece without a score, bringing out all of Verdi's trembling and triumph, with booming percussion and brass interruptions that pierced the quiet of soaring strings that suddenly grew urgent and chaotic before settling into melancholy.

Verdi's Requiem is a thrilling, operatic masterpiece that sings more like an opera than an oratorio. It requires singers who can invest more than their vocal chords into making the texts come to life like characters in a Verdi opera.

The cast of guest soloists did that and more. All are rising stars in the opera world with turns at Lyric Opera Chicago, The New York Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden.

• Bass Morris Robinson showed off a buttery tone and fierce control at his lowest range. Even when he wasn't singing, he was a pleasure to watch as he mouthed the texts while the chorus sang, occasionally bopping his head along to Verdi's triumphant music.

• Tenor James Valenti soared to the highest point of his range, exhibiting a melting tenderness.

• Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove was at her best singing solo but seemed to lose her timing and fade alongside soprano Amber Wagner in the Agnus Dei.

• Wagner was the show-stopper by virtue of her role: singing Verdi's "Libera me," which is more like a Verdi aria than a plea to bless the dead. Wagner, with an arresting soprano that soared to glass-shattering heights with ease, performed the movement with dramatic flair and intensity.

The 90-voice strong TSO Chorus was also terrific, but it could have used more voices to overcome the Music Hall's less-than-desirable acoustics and the magnitude of Verdi's music.


Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Verdi's Requiem, with guest soloists soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, tenor James Valenti and bass Morris Robinson Friday night at Tucson Music Hall. (The concert repeated Sunday.)

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.