Nwokedi-led MUSON Choir collaborates with the audience to sing a hymn

The choice of Mozart’s Requiem as the Musical Society of Nigeria’s Passiontide Concert main offering was apt because of its eschatological tone, argues Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

PASSIONTIDE CONCERT
Among the leading compositions suited for the Passiontide, WA Mozart’s “Requiem” has pride of place. Should it then surprise any classical music aficionado that it was the pièce de résistance of the Musical Society of Nigeria’s last Sunday’s Passiontide Concert?

Of course, it was also a selling point for the concert, held at the Agip Recital Hall of the MUSON Centre in Onikan, Lagos, that it featured this requiem mass – composed shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791 – alongside other selected choral works.

Mozart, as different accounts corroborated, was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg’s go-between to write this choral chef-d’oeuvre. The idea was for the pretentious nobleman to eventually pass the work off as his own composition for his deceased wife. Meanwhile, Mozart, who died at the age of 35 after he had written a substantial part of the work, was under a different impression. And that was that he was penning down his own requiem.

Even after his death, confusion continued to swirl around the composition of the magnum opus. For pecuniary reasons, his wife, Constanze chose not to disclose the fact that the piece was unfinished before her husband’s death. Not only was her intention to collect the final payment from the commission, she also wanted to promote the work as entirely Mozart’s. This second reason would guarantee her the financial proceeds from its publication and performance. She knew that linking her husband’s name to the work alone would up its value before both the publishers and the public. She, it was, who eventually claimed that Mozart not only declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, but also that he had been poisoned.

More pertinent is the fact that the Requiem’s eschatological tone makes its choice apt for the headlining of the last Sunday’s Passiontide offerings. This is because it evokes the ominous mood of these dire times. It is intriguing that the aftermath of the dastardly murder of the Saviour, which happened about 2000 years ago, still haunts the present-day humanity. That incident, hardly anything to rejoice about, has consistently cast a pall of sombreness over the week, which has – according to liturgical traditions – come to be known as The Passiontide.
Even the most Pharisaical of devotees would become less confident on hearing the baleful words from the movement, entitled “Dies Irae”. “Day of wrath, day of anger will dissolve the world in ashes, as foretold by David and Sibyl. Great trembling there will be when the Judge descends from heaven to examine all things closely”, according to the English translation.

These words are reinforced midway into the movement titled “Tuba Mirum”, as the composition announces: “Death and nature will be astounded when all creation rises again to answer the judgement. A book will be brought forth, in which all will be written, by which the world will be judged.”

Indeed, the entire humanity has good reasons to be apprehensive about the word: Judgement. Going by biblical accounts alone, the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nothing to be proud about. No sunshine smiled down on earth-dwellers on the day of crucifixion to proclaim a happy day of redemption. Rather, the forces of nature expressed their displeasure and horror through the darkness that descended “over all the whole land from sixth until ninth hour”. Then, the curtain screening the Holy of Holies from mankind was torn apart by unseen hands during an earth tremor.

Humiliated, tortured and taunted, Christ hung bleeding on the cross, flanked by two crucified criminals, as He awaited the moment of His release from His badly mutilated earthly body. This was exactly what His traducers had clamoured for, because He was deemed a “troublesome” Truth-bringer. They, as the priestly dignitaries, were concerned that they were losing influence among a people they had long held under their spell because of the illuminating teachings of Christ. Ironically, this humiliating death on the cross has been interpreted as “a necessary sacrifice” by many, who in their sober moments inwardly flinch even at the mere thought of the beastly molestation of the Son of God.

Perhaps, it was this that made the pleas of the penitent in the quartet for the four soloists, the “Recordare”, so moving that they are capable of moving many in the audience to tears.
“Righteous judge of vengeance, grant me the gift of absolution/ before the day of retribution,” the translation of one verse says. “I moan as one who is guilty:/ owning my shame with a red face;/ suppliant before you, Lord,” the translation of another says.

But again, the sterling performance quartet of four soloists consisting of Angela Izegbu (soprano), Fatima Anyekema (alto), ‘Guchi Egbunine (tenor) and Olumide Dada (bass) deserved a standing ovation. This is besides its for complementing the efforts of the MUSON Choir and MUSON School Orchestra, led by Sir Emeka Nwokedi, and Kehinde Davies, respectively.

After the Mae Culpa of this work, it was most appropriate that the solemn Christian hymn, “Abide with Me” should conclude the concert. The hymn, written as a poem in 1847 by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte, is often sung to the tune by the English composer William Henry Monk, entitled “Eventide”, which was composed in 1861.
Previously, the other choral complements of the evening’s main piece were performed during the concert’s first segment before the 10-minute interval. The concert itself had started sometime after 6pm, with the rather uncoordinated entrance of the white-robed choristers and black-suited orchestra members.

With the curtain-raiser, Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle “Domine Deus”, sung by an obviously aspiring tenor Stephen Nwosu, the tone of the evening offerings were firmly set. Wasn’t the point of the concert to remind the audience of Christ’s willingness to stand up for the Truth, which He had brought to erring mankind, even if He had to die for It?

Following closely on its heels was WA Mozart’s “Agnus Dei” (from Requiem in D Minor, K 626), which was soulfully rendered by the MUSON Centre’s accomplished soprano Ranti Ihimoyan. Thus, the concert began to unravel into a form of auditory coherence.

The audience cheered the arrival of the venerable conductor Sir Emeka Nwokedi on stage for the rendition of the hymn “Jesu, my Lord, My God, My all”, by Henry Collins in 1854 as the first collaborative effort of the choir, a soloist and the audience. Next followed the haunting notes of “Kyrie Eleison”, composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594),– sung by the quartet Nmesoma Ogbuani (soprano), David Ihechukwu (alto), Chima Ekeson (tenor) and Jaiye Taiwo (bass) – which wafted through the Agip Recital Hall, reinforcing the concert’s solemn ambience and its penitential flavour. The words, which are used as a brief petition in various offices of the Greek Orthodox Church and of the Roman Catholic Church as well as in the Anglican Church, mean “Lord, have mercy”.
Still on a prayerful note, “The Lord’s Prayer” by Albert Hay Malotte (1895 –1964) was subsequently sung with a maestro-like confidence by the tenor ’Guchi Egbunine.

The gloomy pall cast on the evening by the sombre offerings was temporarily lifted with the choir’s more cheery rendition of two Nigerian songs. First was the Igbo song “Jesus Christ, Nwa Chukwu” (Jesus Christ, Son of God), composed by Sam Ojukwu, which was followed by the Yoruba song “Igi Oro Agbelebu (The Cross of Sorrows) by Stephen Olusoji.

The choir subsequently rendered George Bernard’s “On a Hill Far Away” as its second collaborative effort with a soloist and the audience.

Whatever informed the choice of the hymn “Oh, Happy Day” – arranged in1775 by Giuseppe Mignemi – at the end of the concert’s first segment, remains a matter of conjecture. Suddenly, it was as though the pall of gloom was lifted from the recital hall, albeit temporarily on account of the song’s specious claims. The obvious reason being that the shedding Christ’s blood is interpreted in Christendom as a propitiatory sacrifice. This is despite the Saviour’s intercessory plea: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” Sung by the talented tenor Matthew Shallom, it stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of the evening’s other choral offerings.
Indeed, a Passiontide like last Sunday’s should be draped in a shroud of gloom. Anything less would be inappropriate.