Don't miss: Verdi's Requiem at the Southbank CentreInterview
On May 23 at the Royal Festival Hall, the English Philharmonia & Chorus present Verdi’s Requiem, with soloists Naomi Harvey, Maria Gulik, John Hudson, and David Soar. Graham Wili, Music Director of both the English Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, will conduct; we had the opportunity to ask him about putting together a piece like Verdi’s Requiem, with a chorus of 250+, a full orchestra, a four tireless soloists.
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How do you prioritize rehearsal time with a piece of this scale?
This all depends on the amount of time you have with the orchestra and choir. Generally you have more time with the choir. With the choir I started at the beginning, as it is simple and ‘sets the scene’ for the piece. We then rehearsed the Dies Irae, as it well known to all and a great fun sing. I then worked on the Libera Me and Sanctus, as these are the two most complicated movements for the choir and I wanted the choir to feel confident with these early in the rehearsal schedule, so they feel the piece coming together well. Then we worked on the remaining movements which have their challenges, but are not as involved musically.
The later rehearsals I try to go through the whole work picking up on detail that may have been forgotten and bringing the piece to life – living every word. It is all about keeping the confidence high, constantly focused, excited about a performance right up until the performance day. With this particular concert I have the orchestra for one 3 hour rehearsal on the day. The English Philharmonia is an orchestra of extremely fine players, who know the work well. So it is a case of running the work in order to give everyone a sense of the whole piece, understanding my tempi and rubati and working together in the hall.
What is it like to combine the ensembles and lead both at once?
On this occasion I will be conducting a chorus of over 265 singers, so the sheer size of the choir is an issue. At the Royal Festival Hall they will be spread out 5 rows deep, the entire width of the hall. The orchestra, like the choir, will respond well if there is a good strong beat and the conductor manages to anticipate what is coming up, especially if there is a change of tempo or metre.
The main thing is to make sure they all play or sing on the beat. The challenge is knowing who the most important part is to give leads to at any one time and knowing what dynamic level to conduct at when they are singing/playing at different levels. When quiet, the sound of so many musicians playing and singing can create the most magical atmosphere, when loud, it can create one of the most exciting moments in a concert hall.
Why do you think Verdi’s Requiem is often considered “Verdi’s best opera”?
The work so clearly depicts the text. It is a choral work on huge scale. His dynamic markings seem to go from pppp to fff, with added directions such as tutta forza! Musically it has everything from the haunting opening to the final, almost desperate plea from the soprano soloist, ‘Libera me, Domine de morte aeterna’. Sandwiched in between is the very dramatic Dies Irae, several ‘arias’ and ensembles from the soloists. In essence everything is on a grand ‘operatic’ scale, in terms of the size of the orchestration and writing for the chorus, to the dramatic setting of the text. I have found myself encouraging the singers to imagine being on stage singing to each other or straight out to the audience, to help characterise the piece.