Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is a deeply disturbing and emotional work. No amount of words can prepare you for the experience. It needs to be heard live to get its full impact and feel its pacifist anti-war message deep in your gut rather than just understand "war is bad" intellectually. You have a chance this weekend as it's presented by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with the Dallas Symphony Chorus, at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
First, a little background.
Britten achieves his goal by combining the Latin text of the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead with the World War I battlefield poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a few days before Armistice Day. Britten carefully sifted through the poet's output. He eliminated the most graphic descriptions of the horrors of war, which Owen described in sickening detail, and also eschewed the homoerotic poems. The fact that both Britten and Owen were gay was irrelevant to the universality of the composer's intent. This is a message to all humans.
The music was composed for the 1962 concentration of Coventry Cathedral, which was reduced to ruins in the bombings of World War II. However, it was far more personal to Britten and his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. Britten dedicated the work to a group of their friends who were killed in World War II, all but one of whom was missing in action. One, Piers Dunkerley, returned from the war but committed suicide a short time after. According to the Britten/ Pears website, "None of the other dedicatees have known graves, but are commemorated on memorials to the missing."
The piece is written for a large orchestra, a chamber orchestra with a second conductor, full chorus, organ and a children's chorus in the distance, accompanied by a portable organ or harmonium. A tenor and baritone sing Owen's poetry while the rest of the forces, joined by a soprano soloist, sing the Latin text. A big help in following the performance is the projected text on a screen above the stage à la opera subtitles. This should be the practice for all performances with words for the audience to understand and absorb.
Overall, the performance on Thursday, by DSO and their musical guests, was a striking experience. The full impact of Britten's cri de coeue, right down to the last chord (one of the few beautiful romantic-era style cadences), left the audience in stunned silence for a good minute as Music Director Jaap van Zweden slowly lowered his hands.
The Dallas Symphony Chorus, under the able direction of Joshua Habermann, exceeded all expectations (which were already high). In the biggest moments, they still rose above the full orchestra. But they were equally impressive in the quietest sections. It is doubtful that there is better sounding, and better behaved, children's chorus anywhere in the world than Cynthia Nott's Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas. Unfortunately, the Meyerson Symphony Center didn't allow them to be somewhere distant, as Britten wanted. However, they were at the top balcony overlooking the stage. Most impressive was the way Dallas Symphony organist Mary Preston pared down the Lay Family Organ to sound like a harmonium.
The "most beautiful voice on the stage" award has to go to German baritone Dietrich Henschel. His performance of Owen's dismal poetry was mesmerizing. British tenor Ian Bostridge also turned in a great performance. Russian soprano Olga Guryakova brought a raw powerful sound to her soaring solos that was somehow more appropriate than the dulcet tones of a Renee Fleming-type singer. Unfortunately, her diction was mushy, but since it was in Latin and you could follow the projected text, it mattered little.
Co-conductor Paul Phillips, Professor of Music and Music Director of the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at Southern Methodist University, was unable to balance his chamber orchestra under the soloists. He was consistently way too loud. This stood in contract to van Zweden's careful control of dynamics throughout. Van Zweden was back to his tense and muscular conducting style after showing a more relaxed approach recently. Maybe the intensity of the music required it, but it means that his gestures were similar for large sections of the piece.
Britten's War Requiem is one of the pieces of music that everyone should hear at some point in life. If you have not experienced it, don't miss this definitive performance. It is doubtful that you will ever hear a better one.
Just remember to refill your valium.