Verdi’s Messa da Requiem is far from being the obvious program choice for Melbourne Bach Choir. Formed in 2005 expressly for a performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion and branded with a name placing it firmly in the Baroque era, a work that is generally considered to be the most operatic rendering of the requiem mass appears to be an uncomfortable fit.
Yet it is easy to see why Rick Prakhoff, MBC’s Artistic Director and Conductor, might be so drawn to both Bach and Verdi’s sacred masterpieces. While different in many respects, these two works abound with passion and express the extremities of the human condition in music of surpassing beauty. Both are also works that many choristers have at the top their performance bucket list. As conductor of the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra, Prakhoff was in an ideal position to bring the two organisations together for this occasion. The fact that Helena Dix was also available must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity, especially since she had recently been the soprano soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to a packed-out Royal Albert Hall.
This Melbourne Town Hall performance was similarly well attended, showing just how keen Melbourne audiences are to hear the work, especially given that it had been performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Hamer Hall only a few months earlier. The venue itself, however, did pose the occasional problem. Aiming for carefully graduated dynamics, Prakhoff had the opening muted cello lines and answering murmured “Requiem aeternam” emerging in a pianissimo that was slightly softer than the competing air conditioning unit. Not that it mattered unduly – it seemed more a tribute to the capabilities of the performers, especially when the “luceat eis” burst forth in blazing contrast. The first of several a cappella passages followed with a laudable maintaining of pitch almost throughout the work. Responding effectively to Verdi’s aural challenges, the only faltering occurred when the unaccompanied beginning of the Agnus Dei for soprano and mezzo-soprano, singing an octave apart in the minor key, transitioned to the choral repetition in the major.
As part of an all-Australian line-up of soloists, tenor Paul O’Neill immediately set an impressive standard, leading the “Kyrie” with a clear Italianate inflected tone. Helena Dix and Jacqueline Dark were thrilling as they soared to operatic heights in this opening section and Adrian Tamburini underpinned the ensemble with full, rich bass tone. All four soloists have had extensive experience on the operatic stage and generally displayed emotional engagement with the spirit of text. Tamburini in particular appeared to be singing mainly from memory, making only passing reference to the score. But it was Dix who made the performance truly memorable with singing at its ravishing best. The way she was able to spin long lines of gleaming pianissimo notes and shape a phrase in beautifully controlled diminuendos was simply stunning. In passages such as the end of the Offertorio and parts of the Libera me it would be no exaggeration to compare her with the glorious Margaret Price at her most exquisite.
There were many elements to savour in this rewarding performance. The repeated “Dies irae, dies illa” were sung with all the savage gusto that Verdi’s music inspires, while rhythmic buoyancy was a notable feature of the choral singing as a whole. Although there were occasionally some less than ideally full-bodied moments from tenors and basses, the sopranos rose to the challenges of the high notes without seeming effort. There were obviously accomplished singers in all sections of the choir; doubtless among them were the MBC Scholars and Henkell choral scholars – beneficiaries of valuable initiatives that support and promote local choral singing.
Zelman Symphony is another community organization that makes a significant contribution to Melbourne’s cultural life, and continues to flourish under Prakhoff’s guidance. Participants ranged in age and experience from secondary school students to violinists who have been with the orchestra for many decades and principal players, such as Concertmaster Susan Pierotti, with vast professional experience. Outstanding work could be heard from the trumpets arranged on stage and in the side balconies sounding The Last Trumpet, from flute, oboe and bassoon in featured sections, and in some awe-inspiring might from the lower brass and percussion. The contingent of over fifty string players provided the colour and depth of sound demanded by Verdi.
All in all, this was a thrilling example of community music-making.
Heather Leviston attended the performance of Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” given by Melbourne Bach Choir and Zelman Symphony in the Melbourne Town Hall on September 8, 2019.