Music Review: The BSO’s War Requiem
A live performance, of course, always offers something you canâ€™t get from a recording, but that’s especially true of Benjamin Brittenâ€™s War Requiem, for in this piece, geography plays a crucial role. When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed this piece Thursday, conductor Marin Alsop, in her black uniform with fuschia cuffs, stood on the podium as if she were a general on a battlefield, marshalling her forces.
Spread out in front of her was her trusted army, the BSO, and behind them, standing on the rear bleachers, were the BSO’s wartime allies, the University Of Maryland Concert Choir, also in tie-less black shirts and slacks. In the box seats above Alsopâ€™s right shoulder was the white-shirted Peabody Childrenâ€™s Choir; closer to her right was a special operations team, a chamber orchestra (string quintet, wind quintet, harp and tympani). Flanking Alsop were her colonels: soprano Tamara Wilson, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny.
Alsop didnâ€™t combine her forces until the very end of the battle, so the audience kept swiveling their heads from one part of the landscape to the next. A funereal bell pealed the requiemâ€™s tritone motif, and the orchestra began the solemn and respectable mourning for the war dead. The adult chorus sang, â€śLord, grant them eternal rest,â€ť and the children’s choir added, â€śall flesh will come before thee.â€ť
All those musicians fell silent, however, when Phan stepped forward to sing Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, â€śAnthem for Doomed Youth,â€™ asking, â€śWhat passing-bells for these who die as cattle?â€ť He was supported by the chamber orchestra, heard for the first time. Phan declared that no one can adequately mourn warâ€™s victims, â€śsave the choirsâ€”the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.â€ť
It was a brilliant gambit on Brittenâ€™s part to provide an arresting bell motif and then sumptuous choral singing by one group of musicians and then have another group explicitly criticize what just happened. Later he invented martial trumpets and chiming boy sopranos and then had the baritone sing, â€śBugles sang, saddening the evening air,â€¦ voices of boys were by the riverside; sleep mothered them.â€ť
Back and forth it went all evening, between the dignified elegance of the traditional Latin funeral text and the scabrous iconoclasm of Owenâ€™s verse. When the Latin described how God will judge the individual dead for their private conduct and â€śweigh everything strictly,â€ť the English verse implied that the deity will also judge living nations for their social conduct. When Alsop brought all the voices and players together for the grand climax, she made Brittenâ€™s message clear: we need a respectful honoring of fallen soldiers and we need a disrespectful questioning of war. We need them both.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Brittenâ€™s War Requiem again Friday, November 15, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Saturday, November 16, at the Music Center at Strathmore.