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Friday, November 15, 2013

Concert Review: A Funeral for a Birthday

Charles Dutoit conducts the War Requiem at Orchestra Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Charles Dutoit. Photo by Chris Lee.
On Thursday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra marked the 100th birthday of composer Benjamin Britten (coming up on November 22nd) with the first of three performances of his War Requiem. This massive work, requiring two seperate orchestras, chorus, children's choir and three soloists, was conducted by Charles Dutoit, the Swiss maestro whose globe-girdling 2013 conducting schedule has focused on performances of this particular work.

The War Requiem  was composed in 1961 for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, which was reduced to a burnt shell during the Battle of Britain. First performed in the stark modernity of the rebuilt church, this is Britten's defining artistic statement, a work that combines his talent for choral writing with deep pacifist beliefs. The text of the Mass for the Dead is interleaved with the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen's poetry is primarily performed by the three soloists and the chamber orchestra, and echoes the themes of the church ritual, giving them new resonance in the aftermath of World War II.

Britten's arrangement of the Mass changes colors as the work progresses, from pensive prayers to the thunder of the Dies Irae and the Sanctus. Each of these movements has its own stark intensity, powered here by the famous CSO brass section and great shouts from the CSO Chorus. The Chicago Children's Chorus (conducted in the balcony by Josephine Lee) offered the sound of children at prayer, innocent victims all to close to the thunder of orchestra and choir.

Owen's poetry is the stark stuff of battlefields, combining mourning for the wartime dead with eye-witness accounts of the horror of the trenches. Placed next to the powerful Dies Irae and Sanctus, the effect is harrowing on the listener. Mr. Dutoit achieved balance between his multiple ensembles, using his long experience of choral music and opera to shift the sonic balance from group to group. He conducted the singers carefully, drawing a bright, potent performance from tenor John Mark Ainsley, soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya and baritone Matthias Goerne.

These are the same three singers that accompanied Mr. Dutoit in a recent performance of this work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, yet one wonders if the soloists were chosen simply on the basis of their nationality. (Britten himself had planned to combine a Russian soprano, English tenor and German baritone for the work's premiere, an idea that collapsed when Soviet officials prevented Galina Vishenyevskaya from appearing at Coventry.) For the most part, each soloist was effective as they declaimed Owen's text, subtly accompanied by the chamber orchestra. Mr. Ainsley was effective and ardent, but Mr. Goerne sounded blurry in key passages. Ms. Pavlovskaya soared over the whole ensemble with ringing tone, most prominently in the Sanctus.

In this performance, the bright space of Orchestra Hall seemed to compress. Putting the children's choir in the lower balcony gave this performance a ritualistic feel. With the Chicago Symphony Chorus arranged in rows above the two orchestras, a spatial effect was created, transforming the concert hall into a cathedral of sound. The concluding Libera me is Verdian in its intensity, recalling that composer's Requiem in its choral writing. After a final poem depicting a battlefield confrontation between an English and German soldier, the words "Let us sleep now" led into the final blessing from the two choirs. The effect was awe-inspiring, a crystallization of Britten's inspired approach to writing for the voice.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.