The very well-produced programme for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s performance of the Verdi Requiem on Saturday 19th November 2022 in Tonbridge School Chapel contained some interesting memories from Joanna Mace on the last 75 years of the Society. Although now in its 77th season, this concert was intended to be a 75th anniversary celebration, postponed for obvious reasons. This reflection reminded me that I first sang with the choir in the mid 1970s, then played cello in the orchestra for many years, and first reviewed a concert in 2008, last reviewing the Verdi in 2013 – there is much music making to recall and celebrate for the musicians and audiences of Tonbridge.
However, to return to Saturday’s performance. This was a splendid evening; a great work, much admired and, indeed, loved by singers, players and audiences, but one which remains a challenge, both technically and emotionally. It is rightly understood as a religious text expressed through the medium of theatre – the world of opera of which Verdi was a supreme master. Naomi Butcher directed and inspired her huge cast of musicians with authority and clarity of purpose. Inevitably, in such a generous acoustic and large space, which together do not make it easy to achieve balance between the choral and orchestral forces, this had to be a broad brush approach. However, there were moments of great subtlety and expressiveness, especially in the more reflective and lyrical passages.
The choir of about 100 voices would always have stiff competition in matching the fortissimo orchestra, but the overall effect was impressive, spell-binding indeed as we moved towards the final climax of the Libera Me. Unaccompanied and quiet sections were sung with great beauty and flexibility, and with good intonation. I was struck by the total commitment and focus shown by the choir. The ability to inspire these characteristics in her musicians was very apparent as we watched Naomi Butcher’s rapport with them.
There was some beautiful playing by the different sections of the orchestra, including some magical string moments. I felt there could have been more subtlety and detail of expression in some of the more reflective orchestral passages; Verdi always uses his orchestra to portray some of the deepest emotions of his story.
It was fascinating to see the unusual bass instrument for the brass section – the cimbasso, and to read about it in the programme notes. Perhaps the most amazing moment of all was when, at the end of the concert, the off-stage trumpets came to take a bow. The six players ranged in age from 8 to 12! And they were amazingly good, and were perfectly co-ordinated with the main orchestra even though they were playing from the distant organ gallery. Congratulations! But, every performance of the Verdi Requiem relies for its impact on the central role of the four soloists. What a superb team they were; and what demands Verdi makes. The vocal ranges are wide indeed, and the emotional demands are truly those of the opera. The soloists were Anna Patalong (soprano), Harriet Williams (Mezzo Soprano), Charne Rochford (tenor) and Benedict Nelson (baritone) – a highly experienced and expert set of voices. They triumphed both individually in their solo parts, and in various ensembles where they demonstrated extraordinary rapport. This was the crowning glory of the evening.
So, congratulations to all for their dedicated week-by-week practice, and their ability to make this a very special evening for the large and appreciative audience. And, of course, to Naomi Butcher for co-ordinating and directing all these myriad parts (amateur and professional) into one satisfying whole – an evening to remember. Roger Evernden