25 April 2006

‘A great Verdi Requiem’

I am gradually recovering from last week’s performances of the Verdi Requiem. If you include the rehearsals, we must have sung through the chorus sections at least six times in four nights. Interestingly it was not my throat but my stomach muscles that ached by the end of it.

But the effort was worth it. Not only were the audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow extremely appreciative, but the performance actually persuaded Michael Tumelty of The Herald to give us an unreservedly good review (the first in The Herald for as long as I can remember). In fact, the review is so good that it is worth quoting in full:

To what should we attribute the artistic achievement of the RSNO’s performance of Verdi's Requiem on Saturday night, an interpretation compelling in its drama, emotional power, integrity and sheer beauty?

To the RSNO Chorus, producing for the orchestra's principal conductor, Stephane Deneve, its best singing in years, from the theatrical whispers, Arthur Oldham-style, at the beginning, to its fleet, light singing in the Sanctus, to its power in the Dies Irae, to the lucid intricacy of its contrapuntal play with the soprano in the final movement? Or should it be to the soloists, spearheaded by the extraordinary Italian soprano Norma Fantini, whose range of colour was breathtaking: creamy, silvery and of a stratospheric intensity that pierced like a laser (and who took her opening phrases in the Offertorium in a single breath, as Schwarzkopf did)? Or the amazing Russian mezzo Elena Manistina, a singer of mouthwatering depth? Or the two men, tenor Miroslav Dvorsky and bass Reinhard Hagen, even though neither, clearly, was on top form?

Or should we include, high up the list, the RSNO itself, with string playing of magical sensitivity, and a brass section of wondrous sonority and rare balance?

All were essential components in a wonderful performance, but, first and last, this was Stephane Deneve’s night, with a gloriously operatic approach to the Requiem that gave his singers all the space they needed to breathe, and was fashioned with myriad theatrical touches, from the fractional drag in the rhythm of the Lacrimosa to the imperceptible delay in the mighty bass drum thwacks of the Dies Irae, which underlined the emotional depth of the music.

This was more than a fine performance. It was a great Verdi Requiem. And Deneve’s stature increases as a consequence.

19 April 2006

Book reviews

I have just finished another book review for Infinity Plus, having been nudged into action by the news that my last review (of Brian Aldiss's Sanity and the Lady) has now been uploaded to the site (here). Earlier reviews include (H)al Duncan's Vellum (here) and China Mieville's Iron Council (here).

Sometimes I wonder whether reviewing is simply another displacement activity to keep me from getting on with the novel. Reviews in the past three months: 2. Words added to the novel: not nearly enough. And I have four more books sitting on my shelves waiting to be reviewed!

13 April 2006

Easter, no con

Most of the people I know seem to be going to Eastercon. Several friends and acquaintances are appearing on panels there. One is even filming a documentary about it! For anyone reading this who doesn’t know what Eastercon is, it’s the annual convention of the British Science Fiction Association. And this year it is happening in Glasgow.

However, much as I would like to attend some of the sessions and drop in on a couple of the publishers’ parties, I won’t be going to Eastercon. As the name suggests, it clashes with Easter. While I enjoy writing and reading SF and fantasy, it definitely takes second place to my Christian faith, which is fundamental to who and what I am.

So what will I be doing instead of shmoozing at Eastercon? I will be immersed in the various acts of worship that make up the latter half of Holy Week. These can be seen as a stylized reworking of the events of that first Easter in Jerusalem. Alternatively, the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday is a kind of extended meditation on those events and their significance.

For me the meditation will begin with the communion service on Maundy Thursday evening. This, even more than most eucharists, is a recollection of the Last Supper. Immediately afterwards, at St Mary’s, the church lights will be dimmed (recollecting that after the Last Supper was over Jesus and the disciples walked into the night towards Gethsemane) and all altar coverings and decorations will be removed (symbolizing Jesus’ abandonment by his disciples and subsequent stripping before the crucifixion). This will be followed by a vigil until midnight – an echo of the disciples waiting with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Good Friday is the day of crucifixion. At St Mary’s it is marked by three hours of meditation on the cross, finishing at 3 p.m. (according to tradition, the time at which Jesus uttered his last words from the cross). It is a day of mourning, but one that is nevertheless set against the hope of resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Traditionally on Holy Saturday the usual church services are suspended until after sunset. It is a day for quiet meditation on the darkness of a world without hope.

Easter Sunday actually begins after sunset on Holy Saturday with the Easter vigil. The service begins with the church in darkness (just as the service on Maundy Thursday ended), then the paschal candle is lit and from that one light candles held by all the worshippers are lit until the church is full of light. This, of course, represents the resurrection of Christ, the triumph of light over darkness. And that celebration flows over into Easter Sunday itself with its light, colour, music and smells (yes, at St Mary’s we sometimes use incense). We have even been known to have an Easter ceilidh after the festal choral evensong on the Sunday evening.

And all this happens because we believe Jesus Christ (God incarnate) was crucified and then rose from the dead in order to reconcile the world to himself.