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Da Vinci Requiem - a triumph

Cecilia McDowall’s Da Vinci Requiem received its world premiere in the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 7th May 2019 resulting in rapturous applause and numerous highly positive reviews.  This coincided with the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian polymath of the Renaissance period whose areas of interest and expertise covered a multitude of subjects, including music.   The work was commissioned by Wimbledon Choral Society to mark its 100th anniversary in 2015 and was performed by them with the Philharmonia Orchestra, soloists Kate Royal (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone) and directed by the choir’s Music Director, Neil Ferris.   The programme for the concert also included Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs (soloist Roderick Williams) and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (soloist Martin James Bartlett – Winner, BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014).

Following its highly successful 100th anniversary concert in the Royal Festival Hall in March 2015, Wimbledon Choral Society decided it wanted to mark its first 100 years by commissioning a substantial new work for the choral repertoire and set about the task of identifying a composer to approach for this project.   A small team was set-up to explore the current crop of outstanding British composers, both well-established and those relatively new on the scene.   There was much to research, to discover, to listen to and to discuss.  The width and depth of choice of British composers were considerable, and it was no easy task to whittle down the long list to a few finalists.     In the end, the decision was to go with Cecilia McDowall’s proposal of a work based on the framework of a Requiem, but not necessarily containing all the elements of earlier traditional versions of this style, and interweaving texts from Da Vinci's notebooks.  This would be orchestrated and last around 35-40 minutes.   The result was the Da Vinci Requiem, Cecilia’s largest scale choral work to date.

On opening the score for the first time in January, we were met by a dizzying array of sharps, flats, changing time signatures and split parts, but by the end of even the first rehearsal we knew we were on to a winner.  Cecilia McDowall has been described as having “a communicative gift that is very rare in modern [choral] music” and similarly “a gift for combining lyricism and romanticism in her music”.  Whereas some of our initial attempts were rough to say the least and going to take several run-throughs to even out the twists and turns that faced us in the score, there were some other parts that were brilliant in their beauty and simplicity right from the start that sowed the seeds of us knowing that there was going to be a wonderful outcome from it all.  

WCS was fortunate in being able to secure a slot in the Royal Festival Hall again and, even better, within five days of the 500th anniversary date of da Vinci’s death (2nd May 1519).   For its concert in 2015, the choir had chosen well-known works to be performed, resulting in a 2000-strong audience.  This second concert would be a challenge with a completely new and unknown work at its core.  However, by marrying it with the Vaughan Williams and the Ravel, this provided a strong programme content that was hoped would appeal to many different audience members.  Indeed, that proved to be the case and, with a mammoth effort undertaken by the marketing team, the audience on the night exceeded the 2000 mark by a considerable number.

Interest in the first performance on 7th May was heightened by the level of material on the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci published and broadcast in the early months of 2019.   Indeed, the concert even warranted a spot as a special feature on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Wednesday 1st May.

The opening work on the night was the Five Mystical Songs, a setting of four poems (one, split in two) by the 17th century poet and Anglican priest, George Herbert, scored for baritone soloist and chorus.   It received its first performance in the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral in 1911, with Vaughan Williams (a former President of Wimbledon Choral Society) conducting.   Roderick Williams captured the pure essence of the work with his communicative singing (without music) to the audience.  The choir provided the full range of support from its opening welcome through its shimmering underlay in the middle movements to the full power of the closing Let All The World.

Martin James Bartlett’s interpretation of the Ravel, a piece he’d never played before, was astonishingly good, not only technically but in the way that he worked with Neil and the orchestra as a whole to deliver a fabulous performance.   It rounded off the end of the first half - the scene set now for the main event.

Neil’s focus on the choir eking out every nuance and shape possible with the sound produced for the Da Vinci Requiem paid off in the end as the performance seemed to go down very well with the audience, with it offering extended applause and cheers for a considerable period, notably when Cecilia joined us on the stage.

The first article to appear in the press was from the Standard’s Barry Millington who wrote

Cecilia McDowall’s Da Vinci Requiem, given its world premiere by the impressive Wimbledon Choral Society, skilfully interweaves the text for The Mass for the Dead with various writings of or about the great Renaissance man.

He went on to say

The result is a powerfully communicative addition to the repertoire.

The Times was no less effusive with Anna Picard, their critic, saying

Directed by Neil Ferris, Wimbledon Choral Society make a lovely sound – clean, clear and bright.   The uninhibited expressivity of those who sing for pleasure with no payment is distinct from the polished virtuosity of the professional choir.   Scan the faces of the singers, here more than 200, and all you see is pride and excitement [and] a sense of investment and ownership [that] was justified in this concert.

Of the music, she wrote

There is much sparkling and shimmering in McDowall’s writing.   Cadences quiver and shiver unresolved, then vaporise as though overcome by their mysteriousness.

Marc Bridle in Opera Today was also highly complimentary about the choir

McDowall’s strength has always rested in her ability to write for a chorus, and here the Wimbledon Choral Society were magnificent.   Nothing seemed out of place – the women angelic, the men monastic – the intonation and timing exquisite.   Neil Ferris controlled the chorus, soloists and Philharmonia impeccably.

Roderic Dunnett of the Church Times referred to the choir as

... one of the most substantial and formidable choirs in London ... a vigorous and sophisticated choral ensemble

and commented that the Da Vinci Requiem was

... a tribute to the composer and [to] the flair and imagination of the choir that commissioned it and poured life into it so admirably and intelligently.

Members of the audience were equally full of praise for the choir's performance in this concert.

It was an absolute joy to be in the audience at the concert last night and I congratulate you all on a fabulous delivery of this amazing new Requiem.  Such a masterclass!  
[Peter Cunliffe]

What a dramatic and intensely moving piece this is - and one that fully deserves to enter the choral repertoire.  Neil Ferris and his Wimbledon Choral Society were on top form and the audience reaction was hugely positive. Great to hear that the same forces are recording the piece for release next year.  
[Andy Langley]

The Da Vinci Requiem was a towering work and your choir's singing imperious. I thought the Sanctus and Benedictus movement particularly stunning and the Agnus Dei - with the plainsong intro - beautiful. 
[Rod Jenkins]

We returned [home] enriched by an evening of beautiful music in London. A beautiful Da Vinci Requiem like a genial Leonardo painting.  A big thank you to all performers for a great musical experience which we will remember for a long time.  
[Annette and George Paltzer, Zurich]

The pianist was amazing and so were the soloists and orchestra.  However, the choir was the best!  
[Heather Binney]

It was a most satisfying and enjoyable evening for the audience and the genuine warmth and affection amongst all the performers should be noted.  I am sure that Signore Da Vinci himself would approve.  Fantastico!  
[Kathie Arundell]

Congratulations to all involved in the world premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem @southbankcentre this evening.  Bravo!  
[Oxford University Press Music]


April 2023

After two postponements due to the Covid pandemic, the recording of Da Vinci Requiem was achieved finally and released on 7th April 2023.



Photo credits:
Rehearsal @ LSO St Luke's & Workshop : Rebecca Cresta Photography
End of concert @ RFH : Andy Langley

Posted: 19:58:48 - 19/05/2019

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