Verdi blog

In summer 2014, some 100 members of the north London community joined an informal, non-auditioned choir to work towards a performance of Verdi's Requiem with Crouch End Festival Chorus. The plan was to celebrate CEFC's local roots by including these singers in a concert in the Palm Court at Alexandra Palace on 13 September 2014, 30 years to the month since David Temple and John Gregson founded the chorus

Some of the community singers were experienced musicians, others would have said they were a bit rusty, and a few were complete novices to choral singing. Their experiences as they got to grips with Verdi's masterwork - and the thoughts of some CEFC members - are related below...

Sixth rehearsal: 6 September 2014, Fortismere school, Muswell Hill

Enlarge Image Sopranos and altos at this first full rehearsal, equipped with nametags so CEFC and community chorus singers can get to know each other | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy
Sopranos and altos at this first full rehearsal, equipped with nametags so CEFC and community chorus singers can get to know each other | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy

Sibylle Erdmann (community chorus): It was very nice to come back to this great project! When I first saw the summer gap in the rehearsal schedule, I feared that I would forget it all during these weeks. But I was amazed to find all of it was still 'there' and I thought we sounded great. (Don't get me wrong, of course, I studied the score intensely every day while on holiday.) Maybe sometimes you just have to let things simmer a bit, give it some time?

I am in anticipation of all the more to come in this adventure: soloists, instruments? I got a little scared when I received the instructions about when to turn the page - this is a serious performance! It will be an exciting weekend.

Practice continues: 13 July - 5 September 2014, at home

Enlarge Image The furious concentration shown by tenors and basses like Dave and Steve will stand them in good stead as they practise at home |  Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy
The furious concentration shown by tenors and basses like Dave and Steve will stand them in good stead as they practise at home | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy

Dave England (community chorus): So the training continues... We've been shown how to get into the Verdi Requiem part of the choral practice website Cyberbass, which I'm sure is the most effective way to learn this piece. But I have to admit my preferred method is to watch the BBC version from the 2011 Proms on YouTube and hope it simply soaks in.

It's obviously having some effect on my five-year-old daughter who, when I turned on the computer today, asked to see that performance instead of the usual Peppa Pig cartoon, much to my amazement. I think she finds it a mixture of the fascinating and slightly comical, as the conductor gives quite a bravura performance himself. She keeps asking me what the music is about, which is a question I'm still struggling to answer to her satisfaction. But she has decided she'd like to join a choir when she is older, which is great.

I must say that to my untrained ears the choir already sounds fantastic (I'm talking here about our community choir, though the BBC also do their best). I haven't sung in a choir before and have largely forgotten any music-reading I may have once known, but people have been very friendly and patient with my basic questions. I have found the whole experience really enjoyable. I sense that as we move through the rehearsals, the conductor's expectations of the standards required are increasing, and I don't want my inexperience to drag on the quality of the sound. Time for me to turn off youtube and return to some proper practising (and see what my daughter makes of that!)

Steve Wright (CEFC): The opening words of the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath – judgment day) aren’t unfamiliar to me. I’ve sung a few masses since joining CEFC (that’s three years ago - a tenth of the choir’s life), and it gets easier each time. But it wasn’t always like that. I joined with virtually no choral singing experience, and I still recall the terror of having only the vaguest idea how the Latin should be pronounced. So I took spontaneous guesses while the more experienced tenors around me diplomatically suppressed their giggles.

A huge pleasure of choral singing for me is being carried along by the process of learning new music - or being drawn closer to music with which I’d previously had only a passing acquaintance. Learning to sing a new piece is a great way to really get to know it. Each programme broadens and deepens my musical appreciation, and this eclectic choir does that especially well.

Before we started work on the Requiem, I’d bought a recording of it for reference, and instantly recognised the famous Dies Irae. But now, even before the orchestra has joined us, with our ranks swelled by singers from the local community, it’s clear that a recorded performance will never do this music full justice, regardless of how much the volume is turned up. It’s insufficient to describe the Dies Irae as “dramatic” or “loud”. When you hear it performed at close quarters by a large choir, it’s almost overwhelmingly ferocious. Verdi clearly wanted to strike maximum fear into our hearts.

I’m guessing that just a little trepidation of another kind is felt by those singers who, like me, will be performing this work for the first time. But with each rehearsal, I’m more convinced we’ll deliver an unforgettable performance. Ultimately our audience will be the judge. Judgment day is Saturday 13 September, in Alexandra Palace’s Palm Court.

Fifth rehearsal: 12 July 2014, Union Church, Crouch End

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Linda Peanberg King (community chorus)Imagine a glass full of water. Then gently add individual grains of rice. Initially you can't see the change, and then all of a sudden, the rice reaches the surface. The content has changed. The unknown has become known. Saturday's rehearsal was that turning point for me.

David Temple emphasises the importance of pumping your stomach when singing Dies Irae. It's therapeutic, not least because similar exercises in the world of yoga supposedly relieves anger too - a super mantra.

This rehearsal - the last rehearsal before the summer break - is the most intense by far. We lament Lacrymosa as warm-up and then quickly crack on with the rest. I am very conscious that this one of our last attempts to show our commitment and dedication to this fantastic project.

During the break I chat to John, a fellow member of that thin cross-section in the Venn diagram of typography nerds and North London chorus singers. He reveals that my old design studio rebranded the choir using the immaculately named Akzidenz Grotesk. The remainder of the rehearsal proceeds without any grotesque accidents and I really can't wait to return after the summer break.

All I am left with now are the cryptic instructions scribbled across various passages: "Down a mine shaft!" "Not elephant in a tutu - think Darcey Bussell!" I realise that I could probably instruct a gaffer in Latin, which I'm sure would be useful if I put on a panto in, say, the Vatican.

In the hope of free cake and/or adulation, I put up the promotional poster in my favourite Crouch End bistro the next day. The deluge of resulting enquiries leaves me slightly underwhelmed. I think I'll just pester my friends to buy tickets instead.

At this rehearsal, David Temple and the singers recreated a photo taken at the original 1984 Verdi rehearsals which led to the permanent establishment of Crouch End Festival Chorus. Above,1984 and 2014 are pictured side-by-side.  

Fourth rehearsal: 5 July 2014, Union Church, Crouch End

Enlarge Image Peter Jaekel takes the baton, with Paul Ayres at the piano | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy
Peter Jaekel takes the baton, with Paul Ayres at the piano | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy

Susie Cousins (CEFC): This week, our brilliant accompanist, Peter Jaekel, was acting "in loco parentis", as David Temple was up in Gateshead, performing at The Sage with his other choir, Hertfordshire Chorus.

Having covered all movements of the requiem in previous rehearsals, the focus now turned to finessing, working on the accuracy, dynamics and musicality to start shaping the work in to the thing of beauty and drama that it has to become. It's really clear that a lot of people have been doing their homework, the choir's growing in confidence and there's some really strong and powerful singing coming through. Having said that, Peter's ear for detail means we work hard, and he imparts some really useful technical tips, particularly that even if you're singing low in your register, you need plenty of breath and support to avoid slipping below the notes. Definitely helpful for the very start of the piece where the subtlety could be ruined by even a microtone of flatness.

My highlight of the week? Peter, a man of impeccable musical taste, revealing his guilty pleasure - a certain Lloyd Webber song. It starts with a ninth interval - I'll leave you to guess which song it is.

Sibylle Erdmann (community chorus): I am one of the community singers, never having sung in a choir before, actually never having (publicly) sung before. Someone handed me a leaflet on the street and with a smile invited me to the Verdi rehearsals. I am around this summer as I am writing up a research piece on different ways of knowing and how we get to know. Understandably, I have been nervous about the singing but I am really enjoying this experience. Am I what is called unconsciously incompetent?

Performance anxiety aside, I am impressed by the choir as an organization with roles and rules. It’s actually fun to be in an organization where I can safely say: I don’t have a clue, but I am giving it a go. And thank you for the patience and encouragement from my fellow singers in the neighbouring seats, you are helping me a lot! The only problem is… sometimes the choir sounds so beautiful, I just want to listen…

Third rehearsal: 28 June 2014, Union Church, Crouch End

Enlarge Image Good posture in action! | Pictures: Sarah Robinson
Good posture in action! | Pictures: Sarah Robinson

Sarah Robinson (CEFC): Although these early rehearsals are really for the community chorus, the members of Crouch End Festival Chorus are encouraged to come and join in. It's not just so the more experienced singers can give a boost to the new ones; if we're quite honest, some of us from the main choir could do with some refresher sessions on the Requiem.

Our musical director David Temple is obviously enjoying these rehearsals. He's very nice to the community singers! But he's pleased to see the CEFC members here too, and he picked one out this week as a shining example of good practice. Behold the fine singing posture of Andrew from the tenors (centre of main picture and close-up on the right), who sits up straight to let the air flow freely from his lungs, and holds his score at an angle just right for reading the music and looking at the conductor at the same time...

Second rehearsal: 21 June 2014, Union Church, Crouch End

Enlarge Image Union Church, Crouch End - a less forgiving acoustic? | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy
Union Church, Crouch End - a less forgiving acoustic? | Picture: Marie-Noëlle Lamy

Linda Peanberg King (community chorus): I recently stumbled around London with eight people holding on to a rope. Last Saturday's rehearsal brought back vivid reminders of this team bonding.

I’m fond of Rex Tremendae. Sometimes it only lasts a little while, but it gives you a glimpse of the final destination. The acoustics are different this week, and less forgiving.

Then we move on to a different movement, and we’re lifted and everyone takes off. The greedy earworm Lacrymosa has not only moved in with me, it’s infested my husband as well.

Next week, more established members of CEFC have been roped in to join us – what scientists call a confounding variable. I expect the roof of Union Church to lift off.

We sing as a flock. Judging by the mumbling that followed the rehearsal of Libera me, we just haven’t yet decided if we’re migrating geese or startled sheep.

First rehearsal: 14 June 2014, Christ Church, Crouch End Hill

Enlarge Image Christ Church, Crouch End Hill - as it was when Linda first heard CEFC there | Picture: Aysha Raza
Christ Church, Crouch End Hill - as it was when Linda first heard CEFC there | Picture: Aysha Raza

Linda Peanberg King (community chorus): “Would it help if I played along on my trumpet?” asks my husband, earnestly. I’m practising Verdi’s Requiem at home and he thinks I’m struggling.

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Three days earlier, it’s the first rehearsal and I’m sitting next to a girl I first met in 1986. WD and I were pen pals, aged nine. She’s sung it before, I haven’t. We’re both a bit jittery. It’s the same church where I first heard CEFC 18 months ago.

I can’t conceal my excitement, and say so to the conductor David Temple. “What’s your name?” he asks, making a mental note to issue a restraining order.

Requiem goes better than expected. Maybe this really is like riding a bike, I think. DT’s jovial style reminds me a lot of my old conductor back in Sweden. Choirs are a sociable pursuit and happy singers sing better. Less strained.

Next movement. Somehow I’m wearing a yellow vest in the Tour de France, racing down a hill, with little to no control. Pavarotti overtakes me and… what was that? Crash.

And I’m wondering if this is a huge mistake. The likelihood of my having sung in a choir before – let alone four times a week – seems not so much a distant memory as extremely unlikely now. Maybe it never happened.

The basses sound great. DT turns to us. “Altos!” To comfort my wounded ego I search for mitigating factors. You’ve never sung in an English choir before, I tell myself. True, but the piece is in Latin, and surely singing is a skill you don’t forget? Even though it’s been 20 years.

During the break I chat to lovely man from Muswell Hill, who hadn’t sung in a choir for 50 years. Rather wisely, he took half a dozen lessons before joining. I’m annoyed with Nina, my friend (and, although she doesn’t yet know this, prospective singing coach), for being on tour with the Reisopera in Holland.

At 1pm, I leave the rehearsal slightly bruised but no less elated.
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Back at home, my husband persists. “I’ve got Grade 5, you know,” he boasts.

I give him a silencing look and press on with Dies Irae.