Tuesday, October 04, 2011


If I’ve got any regular readers left after my somewhat sporadic and random postings of the last few months, they will have seen a theme within the posts developing about various concerts I’ve been to during the year. Earlier in 2011, I decided to go to a few more such events than I’d managed in previous years, and these occasions have tended to turn into short pieces here.

Two weeks ago I jumped on the train to Birmingham, had a decent supper in Carluccio’s in Brindley Place and rolled up at nearby Symphony Hall to hear the first concert in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2011/12 season. They had decided to go for broke and start with Verdi’s Requiem, one of the greatest pieces of religious music ever written.

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I wrote a piece a while back about the various ways the major composers over the past five centuries had tacked the Requiem Mass. In classical music terms, it’s a bit like climbing Everest, with some composers following well-trodden routes and others carving out new ways to the summit. Between them all, they have written some of the most moving music the world has ever heard, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, first performed in 1874, is one of the very best.

Verdi’s main claim to fame is a staggering series of Operas, some of the best known ever written. His melodic writings have often transcended the relatively limited appeal of the original operas they came from and various sections from them have become iconic and popular shorter pieces known by many people who ordinarily would profess no knowledge or even liking for opera.

He wrote almost exclusively for the Operatic theatre, and there are at least 28 major melodramatic works to his name. On a visit to the city of Parma in Emilia-Romagna in late 2010, I went to the Opera House there, and they were in the middle of performing every single one of them, a different one on each day for 28 days without a break!

In the middle of this outpouring, he produced his Requiem, and you do not have to be any form of genius to recognise that it is as near as you will ever get to an Opera with a religious text to it. It is written for a vast orchestra, four soloists and a large double choir, and contained within its pages is some the loudest unamplified music ever written. The “Dies Irae” which is famous all over the world, is written to scare the living daylights out of you, so I’d got my new Hearing Aids tuned to 11 for the night to ensure that I got full sonic value from the evening’s performance.

I’d managed to get a fabulous seat, in the centre of the front row of the circle, and as I sat waiting expectantly the massive orchestra and choir of around 150 people were spread out completely filling the large stage in front of me. The place was totally packed out, and you could feel the expectation. Because of the large scale of performers needed, it is not a work that gets performed every day, and the CBSO is one of the world's “great” orchestras, so this was going to be a bit special.

The work has one of those fantastic openings, where the audience, as soon as the Conductor raises his baton, falls into complete silence. And I mean complete silence. There were over 2,000 people there, and you could have heard a pin drop. The expectation was incredible. After what seemed like an age of absolute nothingness, you gradually made out the sound of the strings playing the introduction of the Kyrie as softly as they possibly could, and I for one could feel the hairs on the back of my neck grabbing at me as this happened. Fantastic.

The second section after the Introit and Kyrie is the Dies Irae, and Andris Nelsons, the CBSO’s Latvian conductor blew the roof off the Hall with an incredible volume of sound. Good old Verdi. Even though it is such a well known piece of music now, when it’s played live with such immense forces, it does have an amazing effect on me.

The soloists were extremely good and the chorus was very together and responsive. It’s a piece with no intervals and lasts around 85-90 minutes, at the end of which I felt quite drained. Some people pooh-pooh it a bit as “just another opera” it but I think it is an extraordinarily affecting work, bizarrely as Verdi was an atheist. Yes, it wrings and tugs at your emotions, but what on earth is wrong with that. It’s supposed to do precisely that.

A very good night indeed.

I loved it.


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