PREVIEW: KUSC to air Disney Hall “War Requiem” concert on Sunday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

If you weren’t able to attend the performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Sunday in Orange County or Monday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, KUSC (91.5 FM in Los Angeles and www.kusc.org) will air the L.A. performance on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Details: www.kusc.org

James Conlon conducted The Colburn Orchestra, members of the USC-Thornton Symphony, three soloists and more than 400 choristers ranging from local universities to the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in the performances.

Links to my preview story and my review are HERE and HERE.

BTW: A Caltech link has the complete text HERE so you can follow it. Although the diction was exemplary during the Disney Hall performance, being able to read Wilfed Owen’s gripping poetry would definitely be a plus.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Conlon leads combined forces in stunning performance of “War Requiem”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
New Zealand Youth Choir (David Squire, music director)
November 25, 2013 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.
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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the monuments of choral literature. It stands with the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi and alongside other choral masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s a catch. Britten’s magnum opus is so rarely performed that its emotional impact seems outsized when compared with the others on this list. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it certainly lessens the effect of these better-known pieces.

At last night’s preconcert lecture immediately preceding a stunning performance of War Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Conductor James Conlon asked how many people would be hearing the piece for the first time, nearly every hand was raised. Imagine how staggered you would feel if you were hearing, for example, Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah for the first time.

Thus it’s truly amazing that this rare performance of War Requiem, was sung and played not by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or one of our other professional ensembles but by about 400 instrumentalists and choristers, all college age or younger, along with three soloists. What could have been a train wreck was instead a vibrant, cohesive unified front, all under the steady hands and baton of Conlon, who somehow managed to sandwich this concert and last Sunday’s performance in Costa Mesa between conducting Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Los Angeles Opera.

The two local War Requiem concerts took place just days after the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; the 50th anniversary of President John K. Kennedy’s assassination added to the emotional nature of the evening.

How Britten, a pacifist, came to write War Requiem is reasonably well known (you can read some of the details in my preview story HERE). The basics are that he was commissioned to write a piece of his choosing for the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The premiere took place on May 30, 1962.

Part of Britten’s genius in writing War Requiem was that he melded the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass text with gritty poetry written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. (Ironically, Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week — almost to the hour — before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war; he was awarded a posthumous Military Cross). As a preface to War Requiem, Britten quoted Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” That’s just a sample of the emotional impact of the poems.

Another aspect of the work’s greatness is how Britten deployed his forces. The adult choral forces (182 voices, if everyone listed in the printed program actually sang) join with the soprano soloist to sing the traditional Requiem text, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra. A children’s chorus, accompanied by an organist, adds a potent angelic element at key points, sung last night from the top rear balcony. Tenor and baritone soloists, simulating a German and English soldier, sing Owen’s poetry, accompanied by an ensemble of 13 instruments.

In some performances, the male soloists and chamber orchestra are separated from the main body and led by a second conductor (indeed, that’s how the premiere performance was played; Britten conducted the smaller contingent while Meredith Davies led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

However, Conlon chose to conduct the entire performance by himself, placing the chamber ensemble directly in front of him with the larger orchestra behind them. The male soloists — tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Phillip Addis — flanked the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamara Wilson sat in the middle of the front row of choristers on the choral benches. Conlon led some portions using a baton; for many of the choral sections, he laid down the stick and conducted with expressive hands.

The choral forces delivered a beautiful tone and were amazingly precise throughout the 84 minutes, but particularly in the extended fugal writing in the “Dies Irae” sections . The combined children’s choruses floated gorgeous sound with precise diction from their “heavenly” location in Disney Hall.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, symbolizing a Russian soldier, poured out rich opulent sounds that carried even over the combined choral and orchestral forces. Her melding with the chorus in the “Lacrimosa” was a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser, singing music written for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, delivered that bright tone so favored by English composers and Kaiser’s diction so precise that the projected supertitles were not needed. Baritone Phillip Addis’s voice turned gravely in the lower registers but he was emotionally strong in delivering some of Owen’s most poignant lines.

The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony played splendidly, especially given the fact that, according to one story, only Concertmaster Jeffrey Myers had ever played the work before. The 13-member ensemble (the same number that Britten used to accompany his three chamber operas) passed Britten’s melodies from hand to hand, as it were, while offering sympathetic accompaniment to Kaiser and Addis.

All forces eventually join in the final movement, “Libera Me,” in which Kaiser and Addis sang Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a commentary on companionship between enemies after one has killed the other, interspersed with the final words of the Mass. Two bells — C and F-sharp — continue to toll as they have throughout the piece and the chorus finally dies away in a mysterious vapor. The capacity audience sat spellbound, silent for 20 seconds, before erupting in wave after wave of standing ovations for the performers — and, one thinks, also for the piece. Conlon appeared to be spent emotionally; for most of the audience, the feeling was the same.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Conlon’s typically erudite preconcert lecture was particularly helpful in showing the influences of Verdi, Berlioz and Mozart on Britten’s writing.
• The organist last night was Christoph Bull, head of the organ department at UCLA, a nice — if somewhat ironic — touch to counterbalance the presence of the USC-Thornton Symphony and two USC choirs.
• In honor of the Britten centennial, Decca has released a newly remastered version of the original recording of War Requiem, featuring the three singers who Britten intended to sing the premiere: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). Because of international tensions, Vishnevskaya didn’t sing at the premiere (English soprano Heather Harper stepped in) but Vishnevskaya did perform in the original recording. The new version include a CD of War Requiem, , a Blu-Ray Audio format, which allows the recording to be heard at 24-bit, and a CD featuring Britten in rehearsal at the sessions in January 1963, which was produced by the legendary John Culshaw.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Britten’s centennial to be remembered with two performances of “War Requiem”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was published today in the above papers.

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)

Today at 8:15 p.m. • Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by Dr. William Hall.
Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

Tomorrow at 8 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by James Conlon.
Information: www.laphil.com
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Brittenr4WebWe’re in the penultimate two months of a year honoring birthdays of three of history’s most important composers: the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centennial of Benjamin Britten (right), which occurred on Friday (Nov. 22). The Britten centennial reaches its climax locally today and tomorrow with a massive collaboration on Britten’s most significant work: War Requiem.

These performances are among hundreds that have been part of Britten 100/LA, which has been spearheaded by LA Opera but which has involved hundreds of different organizations, large and small, throughout the Southland.

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon takes a break from conducting the company’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to lead The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony (the work calls for a large main orchestra and a smaller-sized ensemble), organ, three soloists, five university choirs and the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in War Requiem tonight at 8:15 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“Break” may be a misnomer; Conlon leads a Falstaff performance beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so he may be changing clothes as he drives/flies down the freeway.

Coventry_Ruins
War Requiem premiered on May 30, 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral in the center of England. The city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral, St. Michael’s, had been destroyed by a Nazi air raid on Nov. 14, 1940. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs, survived.

Following a competition that received entries from more than 200 architects, Basil Spence was selected to design a new cathedral. He insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral be kept as a stark memorial and his dramatic new cathedral was built alongside; a glass canopy connects the two buildings. For his stunning conception, Spence was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

Britten, a renowned pacifist, was 48 when the piece was first performed and was given free rein to compose the dedicatory work. He chose to interleave portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass with gritty poems written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. Britten used one of Owen’s poems as a preface to the work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

The piece lasts about 85 minutes (there is no intermission), and is considered by most to be a landmark 20th century composition. A unique part of the composition is that Britten wrote for soloists (soprano, baritone and tenor) who were meant to characterize individual Russian, German and English soldiers.

According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.”

The Disney Hall performance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which this season has dwindled to just two concerts, both by The Colburn Orchestra. One feature of this series has always been its low prices: tickets for “War Requiem” range from just $15.99 to $41.50. By contrast, the Segerstrom Concert Hall tickets are scaled from $20 to $150.

Conlon will give a preconcert lecture an hour before the Disney Hall performance. At Segerstrom Hall, Dr. William Hall, who led one of the first Southern California performances of War Requiem, will deliver the lecture at 7 p.m. In part because of the work itself and in part because it is so rarely performed, this is a “don’t miss” event.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• How rare are these concerts? According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, these concerts and a set by the San Francisco Symphony next weekend are the only North American performances of War Requiem for the balance of this year (performances have been held recently in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago — see below). The SFO schedule is somewhat odd: Nov. 27 and 30 with nothing between.
• It’s possible that this will be the only time that most of the instrumentalists and choristers will play and/or sing War Requiem in their lifetimes.
• The program notes for tonight’s Segerstrom Hall concert are HERE (they come courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony). Click on the note to make the type larger and click on the arrows to navigate the pages. These notes (actually pages from the program book) also include the text and performer bios.
• The program notes for the Disney Hall performance are HERE. These also include an iTunes link to the original cast recording with Britten conducting HERE.
• The writeup on War Requiem from the Britten-Pears Foundation is HERE.
• A fascinating interview in The Guardian with composer Oliver Knussen’s reflections on Britten is HERE.
• Anne Midgette, music critic of the Washington Post, and her husband and fellow critic, Greg Sandow (who is also a composer, consultant and educator) have written a series of articles on recent performances of War Requiem in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including somewhat contrasting reviews of the same performances. If you’re interested, click HERE for an overview and follow the various threads to the relevant stories. However, you might want to wait until you’ve seen either of the local concerts.
• When Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony in War Requiem last week, he honored Britten by using Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne as the soloists. Nice touch.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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