Sunday, May 4, 2014

The thrill and sorrow of Britten's 'War Requiem' fills the Palladium in Indianapolis Symphonic Choir concert

Eric Stark has led the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir since 2002.
Slightly past most centennial observances for Benjamin Britten, Saturday night's performance of his "War Requiem" under the baton of Eric Stark made for an epic postscript to the big year.

A resourceful composer, vastly gifted, effective and shrewd in his expressive range (despite deficits in simple humanity), Britten (1913-1976) never wrote more expansively and insightfully than in this setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead, together with poetry by Wilfred Owen.

Stark's advocacy of the piece was overwhelming in this concert by his Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with three stalwart vocal soloists and the Indianapolis Children's Choir assisting. The ISC was augmented by the Butler University Chorale and the Indianapolis Men's Chorus.

Before the music began, a packed, darkened Palladium in Carmel heard recorded narration of the work's origin in the 1940 destruction by German bombs of Coventry Cathedral, and its post-war rebuilding next door to the original church's still-standing spire. To mark the occasion of the new cathedral's dedication, Britten's work was first performed there in 1962.

The interwoven verse by Owen, who died in combat a week before the Armistice ended World War I in 1918, tilts the liturgical commemoration of deceased souls and pleas for their salvation toward direct condemnation of war. There's no getting around the fact that "War Requiem" is an angry pacifist monument, devoid of human glory, addressing warfare's waste and pointless sacrifice without pausing to praise valor or uphold patriotism.

"War Requiem" is eloquent in replacing the emotions that sporadically whip up our fallen world's enthusiasm for war with pity — a word emblazoned at the head of the score in Owen's words: "My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity." So it was for Britten, and the details of his compositional poetry are exquisite. They were sensitively rendered throughout this performance.

Tenor Tom Cooley had fine moments.

Soprano Sinead Mulhern personalized the Lain text.
The tremendous flexibility with which the huge forces are deployed lifts up the pity — a huge range of sound and both instrumental and vocal textures. At one end, the fright of the "day of wrath," evoked one last time in the "Libera me" finale, becomes a whirlwind of massed noise. In the crucible of war, the brotherhood of man can find outlet only in a collective shriek of despair. The two male soloists are accompanied only by a chamber orchestra, with ISO first-chair players in fine fettle behind tenor Tom Cooley and baritone Christopheren Nomura. The soprano soloist (here, the equally adept Sinead Mulhern) carries the communicative weight of the Latin text, along with the choruses.

Baritone  Christopheren Nomura sang with authority
At the other end of the spectrum, the work contains just two lines for vocal soloist without accompaniment; both are key emotional pivots. The first comes during the haunting tenor-bass duet, performed with mesmerizing intensity, in which Britten revisits his fascination with Owen's version of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Just as Isaac is brought to be sacrificed, he asks anxiously: "But where the lamb for this burnt offering?" As Owen saw it, an entire generation now stood in the place of Isaac, who in the biblical story is spared. No such luck for the poet and his cohorts.

The other unadorned vocal line is the crux of "Strange Meeting," a poem about a hallucinatory, underground encounter of a soldier with his enemy; the line is "I am the enemy you killed, my friend." In both cases, Britten has given moments of vulnerability and recognition the most poignant kind of simplicity, even barrenness. Much of the choral writing as well is chantlike, abjuring a harmonic density that Britten finds all the more effective when used sparingly.

ISO conductor emeritus Raymond Leppard, who knew Britten well in his native England, once told an interviewer: "Love never figured very largely in Ben's music, but good and evil." He was speaking largely of Britten's operas, but I think the limitations of "War Requiem," and they are few, can be seen in these terms.

The tenderness that's essential to some major Requiem settings — the love for humanity that the text implores God to confirm through eternal life —is not conspicuous here, as it is in such vastly different requiems as those by Verdi, Berlioz, Mozart and Faure. There is gentle music, of course, much of it given to (originally) a boys' choir, here performed beautifully by the Indianapolis Children's Choir, placed in the gallery and flawlessly led by its founder, Henry Leck. Particularly touching was the children's repeated "ad te" (to Thee) in their first appearance, petitioning for God's attention, in "Requiem aeternam."

Like Owen, Britten works to make the pity of war particular and individual, radiating outward in significance from there. One of the score's most striking moments, beautifully sung by Cooley, is the meditation on a recently killed soldier and the mystery of his connection to the living world: "Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides / Full-nerved — still warm — too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall?"

The questions are accompanied by a cumulative orchestral tremolo, acutely judged in this performance. It's a serious parody of a famous passage in "Falstaff," by Britten's idol Giuseppe Verdi, in which the title character muses on the joy of drinking and the pleasure of feeling a growing tingle throughout the body, ending with "the thrill invades the world." Later, a more massive crescendoing tremolo accompanies the choir's proclamation that "Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory."

By 1961, Britten had thoroughly absorbed such influences and in "War Requiem" evokes his own established manner as well, not quoting but reapplying aspects of everything from "Peter Grimes" to "Rejoice in the Lamb."  His  gift for making even an isolated lyrical phrase "tell" is displayed by the wispy solos in the chamber orchestra between phrases of "Strange Meeting" and in what is probably the most beautiful moment in the whole work.

It happens when the tenor bursts softly into Latin for the first and only time, ending "Agnus Dei" with "Dona nobis pacem." The ascending line must be neatly phrased, well-supported but not too loud, and perfectly in tune. Cooley met the mark — as did this performance in nearly all respects. True, there is not much love in "War Requiem," not even for God, but the aching contrast of good and evil in the history of human slaughter has no parallel in music.

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