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Verdi's Requiem, the MSO Chorus, and how they prepare to sing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Verdi’s Requiem is one of the most loved works in this format, a Catholic mass for the dead, which has been used as the basis for musical composition since the 15th century. There are many that come to mind immediately; Mozart is usually first (they made a movie about it!), Faure, Brahms, and now the more modern versions by Britten and our own Deborah Cheetham. I work at the MSO and my job is the Operations and Chorus Coordinator. I thought I would give you an insight into the process of preparing a concert of this scale from the perspective of the Chorus. I am a former member of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra Chorus. I sung in four programs, three of which were requiems, one of which was the Verdi. I am by no means an expert though, there are members of the MSO Chorus who have been singing alongside the MSO since the 1980’s!

We currently have 170 semi-professional singers who donate their time to sing in this ensemble. And they love it. Our Chorus Director is Warren Trevelyan-Jones, himself an accomplished singer before he became a conductor, and Warren was at the helm the last time the MSO performed this work, as were many of the singers performing it this time.

The piece itself is a joy for the Chorus. A symphonic chorus, like the MSO Chorus, can often be left out of the spotlight, adding texture and colour, ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’ here and there but not in Verdi’s Requiem. Verdi was an opera composer, he knew what to do with the human voice. He pushes the singers to the edge at times but not in the same way as Beethoven does in his Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy, it’s not a marathon. Verdi gives the Chorus numerous moments to shine from the whispered opening, the powerful Dies Irae, the double choral fugue in the Sanctus, and many, many beautiful cadences throughout the work. There are four soloists in this piece but there is a wonderful sense of the soloists and chorus being together, working as a team to create a cohesive sound.

The journey for this piece began back in August. I received a message from our librarian, Luke, telling me that the scores had arrived - and they weighed 52 kilograms! And that was only 100 copies, we had 131 singers signed up for the first rehearsal of this work.

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MSO Operations Officer, Eljo Agenbach, sorting the vocal scores before the first rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem.

Fortunately for us, many of the copies of the vocal score are still labelled from the last time we sang it in 2019 so we were able to allocate those scores back to the same people. The choristers, like all good musicians, make notes throughout the rehearsal period and it is nice to have the same markings left over from last time. I should mention the other half of the ‘we’ I’ve been talking about. Eljo Agenbach is our Operations Officer and she assists me in running the Chorus. She’s in the photo above with the scores.

Our first rehearsal was on Monday 29 August. The first rehearsal is always an exciting time for the Chorus. We have had a really busy year, with many members performing in every concert, but some of the singers haven’t sung since earlier in the year so there is a buzz of excitement with old friends and colleagues catching up, probably reminiscing about the last performance of this work! Preparing a work like this can be quite straightforward for some members, having done it numerous times, but we are very fortunate this year to have welcomed nearly 40 new members after a hiatus in auditions during the COVID pandemic. This means that Warren must assume that some people will have never sung the Verdi Requiem before, so there is a bit of note bashing, but there is an expectation for the MSO Chorus that they will do work to prepare in between rehearsals. It’s been such a big year that the group simply wouldn’t be able to deliver the amount of music that they have if it wasn’t for personal practice time.

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The MSO Chorus at the first rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem in Iwaki Auditorium on Monday 29 August, 2022.

There were rehearsals on Mondays and Tuesdays for most of September and October and the Chorus, like the Orchestra, have worked every night in the week of these concerts. As you watch the performances, take a moment to notice the members of the Chorus. They are teachers, health-care workers, lawyers, retirees, students and parents, they do all of these things before coming to rehearsals in the evening. I would like to say thank you to the Chorus for the hard work that they have brought to these performances. They have sung in masks, been spread out all the way across the rehearsal venues for social distancing and have taken a rapid antigen test before every single rehearsal since October last year. Their passion is endless, and they do it because they love standing up on stage with the MSO’s Chief Conductor, four international soloists and one of the best Orchestra’s in the country.

Bravo MSO Chorus!

Written by Callum Moncrieff, MSO Chorus Coordinator.

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