Arriving at beautifully built late 18th century church only to find a shadow of its former self surrounded by gardens harbouring incessant drug dealings is not exactly what most my concert going starting with. The church was St Leonard’s Shoreditch a wonderful building from 1740 with a resonant acoustic and surrounded by a choice audience comprised of ageing neo romantics and trendy 20-30 somethings. Not exactly the audience you would expect to see at a Requiem but it was a refreshing change from the usual venues and audiences.
What was less welcome, were some annoying deviations from the classical concert conventions, that made the evening start on the wrong foot. I find it discourteous to keep the stage devoid of performers while the audience is asked to listen to 25 mins of a recorded piano led Prelude. If we wanted to listen to a recording we would have stayed home I’m afraid. The audience started fidgeting with their gadgets and going on loo and drinks breaks past the 15min mark. A clear indication that the intro idea had backfired. The introduction itself was a winding melody played on a very closely recorded piano that twisted and turned but did not have enough variety for the duration, making feel more of a capricious choice than an intrinsic part of the work.
Another issue of that was a bit destabilising was that Roger O’Donnell would come and go on the piano(forte) and only play the pieces he composed. For Adam Donen’s parts he would give way to Ricardo Gosalbo. That was a bit strange as one would have expected him to be playing throughout, like Donen was conducting the orchestra throughout. Also Donen would turn (twice) to read out his take on the traditional Missa pro defunctis, Libera Me and Requiem Sempiternum (sic) as a straight reading prefacing his composed sections. A quirky choice for the conductor to play vocalist in any concert setting, especially when two singers are employed just to sing for the last 15 mins of this work (and who distractingly walked up the aisle to meet them during the piece).
Coming to the actual musical content, I found it very variable. Using the seasons as the structural unit of the work was a good idea if slightly predictable a metaphor. From some beautiful open ended melodies that gave an ethereal feel and some darker orchestral passages that added weight to the piece, it plunged to self indulgence. One positive aspect was the clearly separate musical worlds of the two composers, that added more variety. Talking to members of the audience afterwards it also divided them into two camps where everyone picked a favourite. Personally I found O’Donnell’s contribution to be the least easy to sit through, it lacked variety and it was far too led by the piano, a frequent fault with composers that love their own instrument above all else. In a Requiem setting a piano is not adding enough gravitas to the texture and thus made me feel it was veering too much into a too light a state to grant solemnity. Adam Donen’s contributions were darker and more in keeping with what I’d traditionally expect from a Requiem. But was marred with an excessive variety of instruments in the orchestration. Having one player (Debbie Sargent) play clarinet, soprano sax and flute just added to the confusion. I can imagine the worry of having to write a piece for a small chamber proportioned ensemble to make one think that adding more instruments it adds variety and interest but it just didn’t work. That multi instrument variation created an ever greater lack of cohesion that made the contributions of each one instrument seem circumstantial.
As a tribute to Christopher Hitchens and Russell Hoban, one cannot dismiss the sincerity of the two musicians that came together to make it happen. But the very concious route to stay clear off a liturgical feel was an issue. If one attempts a tribute, why name it Requiem when the musical content is too secular and meditative than sorrowful. Being a non believer I know it’s a strange complaint to have that a piece wasn’t ecclesiastical enough, but if one adopts a pre existing form, then diverting away from it and getting lost in a post minimalist sea of endless repeating phrases is a disservice to the form that suggests the structure in the first place. It was good being one of the 100 members of the audience and had the 25 minutes of recorded introduction not happened I would have left much more moved and elated than I did. It just felt to me far too easy listening and not challenging enough. The vestiges of something darker were surely there, just wish they were pursued that end more and given us a much more sombre and exhilarating ride.