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Concert Review: Britten's "War Requiem"

Photo credit: Dan McGraw

Seattle Symphony presents the Britten “War Requiem”

By Melinda Bargreen

Sometimes listening to a great work of music can lift you out of the concert hall and into the realm of the religious experience. That was the case for many listeners on June 13 and 15, when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and music director Ludovic Morlot presented Benjamin Britten’s monumental 1962 “War Requiem” in a format that did full justice to this masterpiece. The Symphony was joined by a multi-faceted and expert choral complement: not only the Seattle Symphony Chorale, but also the Seattle Pro Musica and Northwest Boychoir.

First off: a huge round of applause to Joseph Crnko (director of both the Chorale and the Boychoir) and Karen P. Thomas (Seattle Pro Musica) for their choral preparation; the singing was not only accurate and beautiful, but conveyed the urgency and majesty and despair of the texts.

Before the performance started, the audience was asked not to applaud the entrance of the conductor and the three soloists. This clearly was an uncommon concert. The “War Requiem,” presented for the first time in almost 50 years in Seattle, was not only a wrenching memorial to all who have died and all who continue to die in combat around the world, but also an observance of the English-born Britten’s centenary – and a central attraction for the hundreds of choral fans/artists who were in Seattle for the annual conference of Chorus America.

Britten’s design for the “War Requiem” is brilliant and ingenious: juxtaposing the traditional structure of the Requiem mass (with its usual trajectory from “Requiem aeternam” through “Libera me”) with heart-wrenching poetry by one of the English “battlefield poets,” Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was killed in the final days of World War I, expressed the horrors of war and the despair of the combatants with a vivid “you are there” clarity that is scarcely equaled anywhere else.

With the huge array of musical forces on the stage, in the organ loft, and in a side balcony, the music rose to awe-inspiring power in several sections – most notably, perhaps, in the “Sanctus,” where the mighty crescendo of “Hosanna in excelsis” rose to fill the rafters at Benaroya Hall. Passages such as these were juxtaposed elsewhere with music of poignant delicacy, particularly in the lengthy solo passages assigned to the extraordinarily expressive tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and the excellent baritone Ivan Ludlow. Soprano Christine Brewer, apparently singing into a microphone from her perch way back in the organ loft, has a big and resonant sound, but she struggled mightily with the higher lines that lay above the staff. This was not music that displayed her abilities to advantage.

The singers’ clarity of diction – both the choristers and the soloists – was so remarkable that listeners didn’t really need to look at the texts (though each audience page-turn in the program libretto caused a lengthy sibilant fluttering that sounded like a waterfall).

Morlot carefully balanced the soloists and the accompanying forces with great success, and the orchestra was in generally fine form except for some brass intonation issues. The effect of the final “Libera me” movement was that of a vast swirling sound universe, circling and circling around the hall, and lifting the lucky listeners into a new dimension. What a masterpiece; what a fine performance! 

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Location : Seattle
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