Music review: ‘War Requiem’

Audience heartily applauds performance of ‘War Requiem’

By Peter Jacobi

 

It was concert night Tuesday for a riveting performance in the Musical Arts Center of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” 96 years to the day since Wilfred Owen was killed and one week short of when the armistice to end World War I was signed.

The words of poet and soldier Owen inspired pacifist and conscientious objector Britten when, a war later, he sat down to compose his remarkable, emotionally devastating version of the Requiem Mass. After the writing was finished, Britten would place on the title page these words of Owen: “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity. All a poet can do is warn.”

The work’s premiere came after war’s end at a significant dedication ceremony for the newly constructed Coventry Cathedral, placed right next to the bombed out shell of the old church. For the British people, a new Coventry meant setting things right and looking forward. For Britten, the commission to write the “War Requiem” became a meaningful way to express his beliefs in country and explain his faith and opposition to war.

To seal his message about the brutal uselessness of war, Britten blended words of the long-established Latin Mass with Wilfred Owen’s anguished and angry poetry. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle,” he asks. “Only the monstrous anger of the guns,” he answers.

The Latin portions are handled by the large main chorus, a solo soprano and the orchestra. Here, that was the Oratorio Chorus, effectively trained by Betsy Burleigh; a fine soprano Megan Wilhelm, willing to unleash unreservedly the power of her voice, and the Indiana University Philharmonic, led superbly by the master of the whole, guest conductor Michael Palmer, who is entitled to considerable praise for the whole of what one experienced.

Owen’s pleas for peace and sanity, written in English, gave two male soloists — tenor Christopher Sokolowski and baritone Erik Krohg — challenges they nobly met. A chamber ensemble of 12 musicians accompanied them, adding another element to the scope of performers. All of the above filled to capacity the stage of the MAC. Then, placed in the top balcony, the 23-member Children’s Chamber Choir, with an organ to occasionally support, sent their voices from aloft, voicing prayers for the departed in Latin, as from a distance but with potent restraint. Brent Gault contributed the training for the children, who sounded radiant.

It’s no mystery, hearing the “War Requiem” again, that an inspired genius, Benjamin Britten, wrote a 20th century masterpiece. It’s a bit of a mystery how IU’s Jacobs School continually tackles major works, such as this one-of-a-kind Requiem Mass, and brings them to fruition in grand manner. Tuesday’s performance was stunning and fully deserved the extended and roars-filled standing ovation from an audience that just about filled the house. One left the theater not only deeply moved but grateful for what we’re so fortunate to have: outstanding musical performances not on one or a few nights, but time and again.

 

© Herald Times 2014

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