The Challenge of Verdi’s Requiem

As its contribution to observing the bicentenary of the birth of the great Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the Choir will open its 2013 subscription season with a performance of his choral masterpiece, the Messa da Requiem, at 3.00 pm on Sunday, 28 April in the Sydney Town Hall.

Verdi was one of the greatest composers, and played an important role in the political independence and unification of Italy.  The Requiem is a work of the composer’s maturity, being composed in the early 1870s, shortly after Aida, his most popular opera.

The work was composed in honour of the novelist and poet, Alessandro Manzoni, regarded by Verdi, along with Rossini, as ‘the glory of Italy.’ The Messa da Requiem was premiered in Milan in May 1874 on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death.  It quickly swept Italy and the rest of Europe and is now seen as one of the towering pillars of the choral repertoire.

The forces used by Verdi in his Requiem are larger than usual for the Choir (orchestra of over 60), so large in fact that the Choir cannot mount the work in the Great Hall, our beloved musical home, but will be doing so in the Sydney Town Hall, thanks to generous support from the City of Sydney, and Audi Alto.  The Choir will invite some 200 guest singers to join it, and will present the work as a community event, as per our “Sydney Sings Messiah” concerts, described by the former Chancellor, H. E. Professor Marie Bashir, our Patron, as “a most appropriate role for a University arts body.”

Verdi’s great work makes great demands on the solo singers and an outstanding quartet, with international experience, has been assembled for this performance: Celeste Lazarenko (soprano), who has recently returned from Europe and starred in the Choir’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Paulus in May last year; young mezzo soprano, Anna Dowsley, winner of the 2012 Australian Singing Competition and highly placed in the Joan Carden Award, sponsored by the Choir, has just returned from New York where she was taking up her win in the Lady Fairfax NY scholarship; Jason Wasley(tenor) who has sung as a baritone in the UK and Europe, before returning to Australia to continue his career as a tenor with Opera Australia; and Gennadi Dubinsky (bass), who started his operatic career in Russia and has established a substantial operatic career with Opera Australia (he was a soloist in the SSO’s Queen of Spades, under Vladimir Ashkenazy, last year).

Given Verdi’s work in the theatre, as the composer of some 30 operas, some of them among the most popular in the repertoire, it is no surprise that the Requiem contains highly dramatic moments, particularly in view of the power of parts of the liturgical text, for example, the mighty Dies Irae and the desperate Libera Me (since its first performance, the work has been criticised for being ‘too operatic’). What may be more surprising is the brilliant contrapuntal technique the composer shows. Described disparagingly by his fellow-bicentenarian, Wagner, as using the orchestra like a ‘big guitar’, Verdi writes a number of brilliant fugues in the Requiem, reflecting his deep study of the Viennese classical composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, copies of whose string quartets he kept by his bedside. The most complex fugue in the work is that in the Sanctus, which is written for eight choral parts, and with its speed and lightness represents a big technical challenge for choir, orchestra and conductor.

The Choir’s Immediate Past President, Marilyn Gosling, has courageously taken on the challenging task of organizing this major concert, and we are fortunate to have such a committed and capable person in this important role. Music Director, Christopher Bowen, and the choristers look forward to tackling Verdi’s wonderful score and to welcoming the guest singers, who will join us for this major event.

Tickets cost $40 and are available through the Seymour Centre (9351 7940 or

John Bowan

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