Transcribed for chamber orchestra: Britten’s “War Requiem” still powerful.

Coventry Ruins

 The Ruins of Coventry Cathedral

With the horror of the Boston Marathon bombings of two weeks ago still fresh in the nation’s collective psyche, it was fortuitous that Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem had been scheduled by Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra (EMCO) as its season finale on Saturday night, April 27, at Sunset Center in Carmel. The rich and satisfying performance under Dr. John Anderson’s direction along with five excellent soloists and the combined forces of four choruses (nearly 200 strong) not only roused passionate anti-violence feelings, but ultimately calmed anxiety with its final, hauntingly beautiful prayer for peaceful rest. The performance also honored the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (See for more centenary information).

The huge work is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, large orchestra (triple woodwinds, six horns, four trumpets, lots of percussion, etc.), in addition to a chamber orchestra. For this performance by Ensemble Monterey, much credit goes to local pianist and composer Stephen Tosh, who performed the astounding feat of successfully reducing the huge score for a 22-piece orchestra. To be sure, there were moments when the large orchestral forces were sorely missed, but the flipside was that Cheryl Anderson’s very impressive chorus was never overbalanced. If it takes a reduction of such a work to facilitate its introduction to our local audiences, I’m all for it.

Britten, who was a pacifist, combines in the War Requiem the Latin texts from the traditional Requiem Mass with settings of poetry by Wilfred Owen, a British soldier killed during World War I just days before the Armistice in 1918. By juxtaposing the traditional Latin texts with Owen’s stark verse describing the brutal realities of war, Britten provides much hope and consolation, even while administering a type of shock therapy. The work was commissioned to consecrate Coventry’s new cathedral on its completion in 1962. The original cathedral had been almost completely leveled and burned by the German Luftwaffe in World War II in 1940. (So destructive was the Coventry attack that Goebbels invented a new German verb for use in subsequent propaganda films: coventrieren [to Coventrate] was used to describe a new and extreme level of devastation.)

The tritone interval figures prominently in Britten’s musical framework—whether for expressive or symbolic purposes or both. It’s the interval created by three adjacent whole tones (between C and F-sharp, for example) and it can be very difficult for singers to “hear” and, therefore, to sing. The tritone has many names for its various musical purposes (diminished fourth, augmented fifth and more), and it was also called diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”), as early as the 11th or 12th century. Its “unstable” character served Britten well in a work that expresses the evils of war. It also gave the very well-prepared Cabrillo Youth Chorus a “devil of a time” once or twice in an otherwise excellent performance.

There were many highlights: John Anderson managed his forces admirably and supported chorus and soloists well. The EMCO players handled the difficult, reduced score admirably well, with many noteworthy individual performances, including harpist Pamela Scholz, whose name did not appear in the program. Tenor Jake Williams and baritone John Orduña were excellent – ideally suited for the many challenges posed by such a complex score and demanding vocal part. Orduña’s voice was rich and powerful from top to bottom, and Williams’ “Move him into the sun” was poignant and tragic. The soprano solos were shared by three talented women—one from each of the adult choirs. Erykka Ximone had a lovely voice and sang with focus and passion, even if she used her arms to be expressive and dramatic in a way that was somewhat of a distraction. After the intermission, Sidney Gorham appeared and shone in the demanding Sanctus, and Tanya Harris lent her strong soprano for the final section of the Libera Me.

Cheryl Anderson and her choirs deserve special mention. Kudos to Anderson for preparing such a large group comprised of adults and youth for such a difficult work, and achieving an excellent result. The Cabrillo Youth Chorus was positioned in the balcony along with an organ, where Anderson herself directed and kept the remote singers very well in sync with the maestro on stage. The Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Cantiamo! and the Cabrillo Chorale combined to form one very powerful choir that impressed me with their voluminous tone, excellent intonation and diction, and fine balance and ensemble singing. At the end of the Dies irae section, the choir sang a plaintive Dona eis requiem (more tritones), before moving into a beautifully resolved F Major Amen that was simply breathtaking.

The conclusion was quite remarkable. Soloists Williams and Orduña sang the dreamy and ethereal “Let us sleep now” as Ms. Harris sang Chorus angelorum te suscipiat as the kids sang Requiescat in pace from their “celestial” position in the balcony, even as the onstage choirs sang the In paradisum text—well, it was rather intoxicating, like a sedative. Then came the return of the tritone theme to caution us about the evils of war, but then resolving to glorious F Major for the final prayer for peace. It was stunning, and the audience showed its appreciation with a standing ovation.


Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Choral, Orchestral, Vocal ensemble.
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