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Music Review: The BSO’s War Requiem

November 15, 2013

Photo by Dave Harp, courtesy of the BSO

A live performance, of course, always offers something you can’t get from a recording, but that’s especially true of Benjamin Britten’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 Alsop’s right shoulder was the white-shirted Peabody Children’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 didn’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 requiem’s tritone motif, and the orchestra began the solemn and respectable mourning for the war dead. The adult chorus sang, “Lord, grant them eternal rest,” and the children’s choir added, “all flesh will come before thee.”

All those musicians fell silent, however, when Phan stepped forward to sing Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,’ asking, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” He was supported by the chamber orchestra, heard for the first time. Phan declared that no one can adequately mourn war’s victims, “save the choirs—the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.”

It was a brilliant gambit on Britten’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, “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air,… voices of boys were by the riverside; sleep mothered them.”

Back and forth it went all evening, between the dignified elegance of the traditional Latin funeral text and the scabrous iconoclasm of Owen’s verse. When the Latin described how God will judge the individual dead for their private conduct and “weigh everything strictly,” 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 Britten’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 Britten’s War Requiem again Friday, November 15, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Saturday, November 16, at the Music Center at Strathmore.