Verdi Bicentenary Celebrated with a Flourish

On Sunday, 28 April, the Choir gave its first subscription concert of 2013, a performance in the Sydney Town Hall of the wonderful Verdi Messa daRequiem, to celebrate the bicentenary of the great composer’s birth.

Most of the Choir’s big initiatives originate in the creative mind of our Music Director, Christopher Bowen, and are then taken up and realized by the Committee.  On this occasion, the process was reversed: the Committee first considered the proposal from a chorister for a Town Hall performance of Verdi’s masterpiece to celebrate this important musical bicentenary in 2010, during Marilyn Gosling’s presidency; the Committee was attracted by the idea but was very conscious of the financial and logistical problems in mounting  this very big work; at that time, the thinking was that any performance of the Requiem in the Town Hall should take place outside our regular subscription series, like ‘Sydney Sings Messiah’, of which at that stage we had organized only the first edition.

In 2010, the Committee also felt that the project could only be considered with the support of a major sponsor; Westfield was approached and, while unwilling to commit to the Verdi initiative, did make a very generous and useful sponsorship of the 2010 ‘Sydney Sings Messiah’concert, repeating this in 2012. Thank you, Westfield!

Subsequently, intermittent approaches were made to other companies without achieving any results and the idea may have come to nothing, had not Christopher Bowen, during the Programming Sub-Committee’s deliberations in May 2012, proposed that we should program the work in the Town Hall as part of our subscription series.

Another important moment in realizing the project was in December 2012, when Marilyn Gosling, having recently stepped down after three years of a very demanding presidency, volunteered to take responsibility for organizing it. It is fair to say that without Marilyn’s extraordinary energy and organizational skills, we wouldn’t have got there.  Thank you, Marilyn!

For several months, with the assistance of webmaster, Michael Cahill, she assiduously recruited and communicated with the guest choristers, who in the end numbered some 160, while, in any spare moments, negotiating with the Sydney City Council, and approaching sponsors. President, Evelyne de Clercq, was also tireless in her oversight of the project, and detailed management of the entire logistical exercise.  Thank you, Evelyne!

These activities were very fruitful: when the guest singers arrived for their first rehearsals with Christopher Bowen, they proved to be technically accomplished and, in many cases, at least as familiar with Verdi’s music as Grads ourselves (for example, the Joubert Singers, of Hunters Hill, elected to prepare themselves for their participation in the performance by rehearsing the Requiem as their program for the first part of the year.  Joubert’s Music Director, Rachelle Elliott, joined the Alto section of the Guest Choir). From our first joint rehearsal, Christopher Bowen was very relieved to have such a responsive and well-prepared group of singers.  We were thrilled to be joined by so many accomplished singers, who fitted so easily into our rehearsal program and style. Thank you, guest choristers!

Importantly, a generous and very helpful sponsorship was secured from Audi Alto.  Thank you, the Alto Group!

Christopher Bowen meanwhile embarked on his usual meticulous training of the Choir in Verdi’s magnificent work.  For those of us, like your correspondent, who had sung in other performances of the Requiem, Christopher revealed new layers of subtlety and significance, all of which helped to underline the greatness of Verdi’s achievement.  When the guest singers arrived, Christopher was at his genial best, making them feel welcome and valued, and obviously determined to give them a musical experience to remember. All indications are that he succeeded in this purpose.  Rehearsal pianists, Amy Putt , Mikey Curtain, and Ben Burton who filled in at the last minute for the first workshop on the 20th April,  provided expert faithful support.  Thank you Amy,Mikey and Ben!

Without wishing to appear to disrespect or cheat our guests and indeed obeying Verdi’s own clearly stated directions in the score, the Chamber Choir was given the task of singing some of the more exposed parts of the choral score.  Ros Moxham(soprano) took charge of these rehearsals with her usual expertise and skill  Thank you, Ros!

Verdi’s work is on a grand scale and that also applies to the orchestra. Pamela Traynor (soprano) had the enormous task of engaging an orchestra of over 60 players.  The signs were very good, when the string players had a special rehearsal two days before the performance. Their sheer numbers were astonishing to this modest member of amateur choirs – eight first and second violins and violas, six cellos and (wait for it!) four double basses.  And, with Concertmaster Stan Kornel in the first desk, they sounded terrific.  The full orchestra came together for the first time with the soloists and choir, for a rehearsal on the morning of the concert and sounded fantastic.  As well as Stan, they included a number of our regular players – Inge Courtney-Haentjes (violin, who has played as Concertmaster in other of our concerts),Deborah de Graaff (clarinet), Leah Lock and Bronwen Needham (flute), Duncan Thorpe (oboe), Graham Nicholls, Tina Brain and Adrian Hallam ( horn), Melanie McLoughlin (trumpet), Michael Wyborn (trombone), and Steve Machamer (timpani).  A huge thank you to the highly gifted orchestra members, whose musical talents made such an important and fantastic  contribution to the experience for the Grads, the guest choristers and the audience!

Verdi’s work came under criticism from its premiere as being too operatic, and it is certainly true that substantial parts of the music for the soloists would not be out of place in a dramatic opera.  The two young women soloists did a terrific job. Celeste Lazarenko (soprano) has been seen principally as a baroque specialist, although she sang the solo in our performance of Mendelssohn’s Paulus in May 2012. Christopher Bowen identified potential for Celeste’s voice in Verdi’s work, believing that, while not the dramatic soprano usually cast in this role, it would have the potential to cut through and provide the clarity of tone he was seeking in this performance.  In the event, Celeste’s great high register stood her in very good stead and she demonstrated a breathtaking skill in floating a high pianissimo, that brought to mind Montserrat Caballé.  The Choir had a particular interest in the mezzo soloist, Anna Dowsley, who was singing in the concert, as a result of being honourably mentioned in the 2012 Joan Carden Award (later in 2012, Anna, a recent graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, had won the Australian Singing Competition and travelled to New York as part of her prize for winning Opera Foundation Australia’s 2012 Lady Fairfax Scholarship.)  Singing a Verdi role for the first time, Anna made a fine impression with her beautiful voice production and musicianship.  The Choir can feel gratified that, through the Joan Carden Award, it has contributed to the experience and development of this gifted young singer, who looks like a star of the future.  The Choir’s PR team, Jacqui Dropulic and David Moser, arranged interviews for Celeste and Anna in relevant local newspapers, which helped to set the scene for a successful event.  Thank you, Jacqui and David.

Russian bass Gennadi Dubinsky brought a true basso profundo quality to proceedings, very appropriate for this highly dramatic work.  Gennadi had sung a solo role in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2012.  His dark voice made a fine contrast with those of the other soloists and added a valuable note of solemnity to proceedings.

Tenor, Jason Wasley, widely experienced in this great work, came from Melbourne for rehearsals and the performance day. Suffering some indisposition for the performance, he manfully soldiered on in the best professional tradition.  We wish him a full and speedy recovery.

Thank you Celeste, Anna, Jason and Gennadi!

To top everything, the superb space of the Sydney Town Hall was almost filled to capacity.  It was obvious that the general public were enthusiastic to attend this special event. In addition to the advertisements in the press, Colin Fox gave us his usual helpful plug, while his ABC Classic FM colleague, Mairi Nicolson passed on the details of our performance to other presenters and we heard mentions on air by Emma Ayres and Christopher Lawrence.  Radio station Fine Music 102.5FM gave the concert several mentions in advance, included an article in their magazine, Fine Music, and broadcast a live interview with Christopher a few days out from the big day. Thank you ABC Classic FM and Fine Music 102.5!

This large audience may have unwittingly established a new tradition, comparable to standing up for Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, by emitting a great whoop at the end of Verdi’s virtuosic Sanctus.  This felt very appropriate in the context of the performance as that is precisely how the Choir felt at that moment.

All the ingredients finally turned out to be present, but the effort would have been in vain without the magic of the master chef, Christopher Bowen.  Christopher put in a superb and courageous effort to make it all work.  Apart from the demands on his musical skill, which again proved to be enormous and well up to the job, he was required to draw on huge reserves of physical and mental stamina. In the week before the concert, he worked in detail with the soloists, work that paid off richly in the performance. He took the chorus for an all-day rehearsal with piano on the day before and, on concert day itself, was on the podium almost all day from 9.00 am until 4.30 pm.  He never looked like losing his cool or good humour.  And the result was brilliant.  It is miraculous that a performance of this quality was achieved on the basis of one orchestral rehearsal.  THANK YOU, CHRISTOPHER!

Mixed emotions always go through one at the conclusion of the performance of a great work like Verdi’s Requiem. Pride and relief, on the one hand, regret and uncertainty on the other.  When, if ever, will one have the chance to sing it again?  Which brings me to the last and most important thank you of all.  Molto grazie, Giuseppe Verdi!

John Bowan

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2 Responses to Verdi Bicentenary Celebrated with a Flourish

  1. Malcolm Cox says:

    Great article, John. Would love to have been part of it. I had done this Verdi before, but now I’m a bit past it to do choir stuff. I’m really pleased Christopher is doing so well since I was first involved in his inception into our choir. We’ve been really lucky to have gotten him. Some 20 yrs now. He’s a lovely & so very talented a guy.

    I would like to have a link to hear what you did, if there is one. I searched YouTube and ABC, but none there. Do you have one? Some recording of it?

    w cheers, M

  2. Wonderful and very informative article, John Bowan. It was an emotional experience and an absolute pleasure to be part of this event-.
    Inge Courtney-Haentjes

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