Verdi Requiem at St John’s

“The concert was stunning and I was moved to tears at several points. It was clear to me that people were singing from their hearts.”

“I was moved immensely and by the end I could not believe that an hour and a half had gone by.”

“The best performance the choir has ever given. It was awe-inspiring.”

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It’s hard to get across to someone who wasn’t there just how electrifying an experience it was to be in that church and to hear it resounding first with the massive sound of the choir, a big orchestra and a big bass drum, powerful soloists and echoing trumpets, then with singing that was magically soft yet powerful, and finally with the thunderous sound of a full capacity audience on their feet applauding.

Photos: Imogen Radford

Verdi: Requiem

St John at Hackney

Lower Clapton Road E5

Sat 20 May 2006

at 7.30 pm

Hackney Singers

Forest Philharmonic

directed by Mark Shanahan

The death of the outstanding Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni moved Verdi to compose a complete Requiem Mass, incorporating the Libera me he had written for the abandoned Rossini Requiem. It received its first performance in 1874, in Milan, and its British premiere the following year, in the newly opened Royal Albert Hall.

Initial reaction was not uniformly positive: many people criticized the Requiem for its breaches of liturgical propriety (the setting considerably rearranges the Requiem text), and some found it too operatic (the conductor von Bülow dismissed it as ‘just an opera’). However, it soon came to be recognized as a work of great stature, and in the succeeding years, although it has become a staple of the choral repertoire, performances of it have never been other than very special events. Why should this be so? What is it about Verdi’s Requiem?

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is of course one of the giants of opera (at around the time when he was writing the Requiem he was also at work on Aïda and Don Carlos, his two great middle-period operas), and there is no doubt that a sense of drama, sometimes even of theatricality, is powerfully present in the Requiem too. Verdi himself was always at pains to de-emphasize this aspect of the work. Although he was not at all a religious man, and often expressed strongly anti-clerical views, he was quite clear that his Requiem was a solemn mass for the dead, not a piece of theatre, and he wanted it performed as such.

The hand of Verdi the musical dramatist is very evident in, among many other touches, the swirling orchestral accompaniment to the soprano soloist at the beginning of the Libera me ; in the double-perspective fanfares of the Tuba mirum (a device which also crops up in Aïda); in the shattering bass-drum detonations in the Dies irae ; in the bold dynamic contrasts of the Sanctus. And the Lacrymosa, at the end of the Dies irae, is a direct adaptation of a duet for tenor and bass with chorus which Verdi originally wrote for Don Carlos and then discarded. But in the Requiem we never lose sight of the fact that the drama being played out is that of a human soul facing its maker. For all its flashes of lightning, it is a work of solemnity and sombre grandeur. Entirely without religiosity, it is profoundly spiritual.

© John Ayto

” The choir reached unbelievable heights of control and sensitivity in this performance. I was impressed by this concert more than any I’ve been to before, and I’ve been coming for over 12 years. I have seen the choir develop over the years to achieve an incredible precision, delicacy and sensitivity. Any choir can belt out the loud bits, but it was particularly impressive how quietly they could sing. The orchestra too achieved subtlety of shading in their playing.” David Radford

“Beautiful. Breathtaking. Stunning venue, and when the lights went down the shadows cast on the walls by the singers added to the atmosphere.” David Norris

“A roller coaster of an evening. This dream combination of conductor, choir, soloists & orchestra captured the full dramatic fire, tenderness & pathos of Verd’s terrific Requiem. And ohhhh – that soprano soloist……..!” John Eakins

“I came from Llanfyllin (Powys) especially to hear the Verdi – 5 hours on the bus – and I wasn’t disappointed. Excellent, excellent.” Eva Goldsworthy

“It was wonderful, and I wish I could hear it all over again.” Grace Wagstaff (92 year old aunt of one of the Hackney Singers)

“The concert was stunning and I was moved to tears at several points. It was clear to me that people were singing from their hearts.” Sue Griffith

“Congratulations on a terrific performance. The soloists had lovely voices, the orchestra played very well (a great piece for the percussionists) and I thought the choir were on great form, and were seriously in danger of raising the rafters in one or two of those fortissimo passages. It was exhilarating and moving. The comments I heard from members of the audience around me at the end were all glowing.” John Stuttle

“Quite a unique and fulfilling experience! From the very beginning of the performance I was moved immensely and by the end I could not believe that an hour and a half had gone by. I’m grateful I could be there to share this. Coming from Greece I’m amazed at the English phenomenon of the amateur choir, something I’ve not come across before. I was very impressed at the standard and at the warmth of the audience who came along to this community event.” Smara Touloupa.

“This is a big performance of a big piece. We just have one day with all the musicians together, and because of rehearsing it so well we had the luxury within that time to consider the drama and sensation that the music can create for our audience. For the choir it would be easy to slip into a comfortable singalong mode, with the familiar Latin Requiem text. But we took the dust covers off. We intend to make the audience listen, but not with slippers on their ears. We want to have an effect on them.

No matter how many times I do this piece I am always impressed by the powerful writing. It’s a bit like a lion sleeping and you wake it up and watch it roar, and you treat it with respect.” Mark Shanahan

“The concert was a triumph of organisation flawlessly executed. I was very proud to have played a tiny part in it. I cannot get the voice of our mezzosoprano out of my head and I ‘m quite happy with that except that this has me on the verge of tears even now. I half wish I could have been in the audience!” Graham Turnbull, choir member.

“I had to come down from Blackpool specially today for this, but I couldn’t have missed it because the rehearsals have been so exciting, and this was the best performance the choir has ever given. It was awe-inspiring. Definitely worth coming.” Andrew Storey, who accompanies the choir in their weekly rehearsals

“You can see and hear the confidence of the singers during the build up to the concert. It is going to be fantastic theatre, with the band and the soloists and the conductor making a great team. When I was watching the rehearsal during the afternoon it was so powerful that I was trembling, and feeling the fear and other emotions that Mark inspired the musicians to put across. At one point he had them singing and playing as quietly as humanly possible, and then suddenly it all built up into an enormous roar of the following dramatic passage. And all in response to a couple of gestures from the conductor.” Dan Ludford-Thomas, associate conductor

“As a professional musician I’ve done hundreds of Verdi Requiems, but I’m really enjoying this one. I’ve heard the choir many times, but this is the best I’ve ever heard them sing. Good show!” John Crawford, leader of the orchestra.

Sandra Ford, soprano soloist: “The Verdi Requiem is one of the great great works, and one of my favourites. Any chance to participate in a performance is going to be special. I have wanted to work with Mark Shanahan since I met him. He is an instinctive, sensitive conductor, and it is fantastic to hear the Hackney Singers responding to him.”

John Upperton, tenor soloist: “This is a monumental piece and I love singing it. Although I’ve done it many times it always seems fresh. There is a lot to learn before you can sing it properly; you have to be clear about the proportions and the pitfalls. It’s a bit like a mountain; it seems to shrink the more you do it, and you can surmount the obstacles, though it’s not easy. It is a wonderful piece from a marvellous composer, and I am enjoying the rehearsal very much.”

Andrew Greenan, bass soloist: “This piece means something particular to me as it is the first thing I ever sang as a bass in a choral society when I was 15. I still think it is an exciting piece, both for choir and soloists. It is healing music; whatever your mood before you always feel better for singing it. It is a particular pleasure to work with Mark Shanahan, who is a conductor who listens to the soloists and trusts us, so that we have the freedom to be making music together. He is an outstanding conductor particularly with such operatic music. Tonight’s performance will be wonderful. “