On 14th December, as part of Bachtrack’s regular At Home Concert Club, we invited opera conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren to participate in a live Twitter Q & A to give his insights into the work on the programme: Verdi’s Requiem. Here, you can see how his conversation with Alison Karlin played out.

Matthew Kofi Waldren © David Myers
Matthew Kofi Waldren
© David Myers

AK: Hi @MatthewKWaldren, welcome to the Bachtrack Concert Club Q & A. Thank you for joining us.

MW: It's my pleasure. Thank you for asking me!

You’ve been a chorus master at OHP. Have you sung or conducted the Requiem? If so what did you make of the work?

I sang it several times before becoming a conductor. I was asked to conduct it this year but had a pre-existing engagement. It always strikes me as an intensely personal piece, full of questions and fears – not an acceptance of everlasting rest.

What do we make of the final Libera me? It ends with such uncertainty. Hanging in the air somehow.

And why do you think this work feels so much more like an opera than any other Requiem?

Verdi was an opera composer through and through. His wife said she would “disown a Verdi Requiem which followed model A, B, or C. Verdi must write like Verdi.”

Verdi knew how to write our innermost thoughts and questions. Every note means something. Opera is about people and Verdi composes his Requiem in the same way. It’s more about a response to death and the questions it provokes than about God itself.

There are also large through-composed sections which is rare for a Requiem, which is usually a series of numbers.

We certainly see the fear of God in this work. How do you cope with it – just as a drama? Do people see it differently?

Everyone responds differently to the fear of God and death, I suppose. In Verdi’s Requiem the fear of God is visceral and personal. But fear is also exciting. I think everyone, conductor included, should be left shuddering by the fear of God in this piece.

It should feel real, not melodramatic. It should be an intensely personal response through the collective power of the forces he uses.

What do you make of the fact that Verdi was not really religious, yet in the Requiem he composed such a huge sacred work?

I think he proclaimed himself agnostic, though his wife said he was an atheist. I don’t think it matters at all. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics performing sacred music all the time!

Verdi wanted to approach the religious texts in a flexible and human way. I’m sure that his approach makes the work “live”. It is certainly not reverential or stuck in a dogmatic religious canon. And, it asks questions of God. Good on him! 

Moving on to the conducting angle, which parts of Verdi’s Requiem are most difficult for you – and which do you relish?

Who couldn’t relish the Dies Irae in the Verdi Requiem? It’s exciting just knowing it is coming up! It is a breathtakingly powerful and exciting piece of composition. And it returns several times, in slightly different guises, dominating the Requiem.

It’s tricky to answer which parts are most difficult – it’s all difficult! One example is achieving the clarity needed to hear all the complex individual lines of the Sanctus. Also, pacing and shaping the overall architecture of the work so that it makes sense is hugely important.

It is truly amazing!

It really, really is! Earth shattering.

© David Myers
© David Myers


And how hard is it to control both orchestra and choir at the same time and achieve the balance of sound that you want?

There are always logistical issues depending on a venue’s acoustic and the positions of the orchestra and chorus. A common mantra to choruses is “Go with what you see, not what you hear”. If you listen your sound will be late. People at the back may also have to anticipate. 

Balance depends on the venue and size of ensembles. You can often add forte/pianos, late crescendos, early diminuendos in parts ahead of time. An assistant conductor’s job is also so important in the hall. They are the conductor’s ears! You can tell if an AC does their job well.

And what’s it like for the soloists? How do they approach the piece when unlike opera they have no character and there is no combat between characters?

I hope that they approach it from text-led, truthful perspective. They must go deep into their own response to the text, the music and the questions raised. Verdi wanted the soloists to be spontaneous and honest – complete human characters, just without a character name.

Often the orchestra and chorus can appear to be saying different things to the soloists, so there is definite conflict there. For example, in the Lux Aeterna, the mezzo’s striving for eternal light is subdued by funereal low brass and wind when the bass enters, singing “Requiem aeternam”.

So, last question for tonight’s #concertclub9. Are you a fan of Verdi generally? If so, what do you enjoy about his music in particular and does it come through in the Requiem?

I love Verdi and am fascinated by his development as a dramatist – how he broke down the traditional forms of Italian opera to reach Otello and Falstaff. He writes so well for singers and understands voices. Though he pushes voices to the technical summit – look at Otello!

His orchestral writing serves a dramatic function and always means something – in a way that perhaps Donizetti doesn’t always achieve (controversial?). The orchestra comments on and propels the drama – a character in its own right. This is clearly on display in the Requiem.

I am getting stuck into Verdi this year as I prepare La traviata for Opera Holland Park in the summer. Concert Club listeners should come along!

You beat me to the plug! Many thanks for answering our questions.

Amazing! It was my absolute pleasure. I really enjoyed the performance and the chat.

You can still enjoy the video and read our commentary to Gothenburg Symphony’s Requiem until 2nd January 2018.