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It seems hard to believe that more than fifty years have passed since the premiere performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66. Although the adjective "great" has become almost meaningless from misuse, this monumental work of Britten's is one of the truly great works of the 20th century, not only for its music but also for the composer's brilliant and moving juxtaposition of the traditional Latin text of the requiem mass with nine English poems by Wilfred Owen.
The University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra was joined by the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers (Susan Klebanow, director), the Raleigh Boychoir, (Jeremy Tucker, director), and soloists Christine Goerke, soprano, Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Nathan Gunn, baritone, all under the baton of the UNCSO's long-time conductor Tonu Kalam. The War Requiem was presented under the auspices of Carolina Performing Arts.
The stage was completely full of performers, with the Raleigh Boychoir placed in Memorial Hall's rear balcony. The twelve-person chamber orchestra and male soloists were at the front of the stage, on the audience's right; their being so close to the podium made it possible for Kalam to conduct them as well as the main orchestra and chorus. (In some performances of this work, where space allows for more separation of the chamber orchestra, it is conducted by a second conductor.)
The War Requiem is Britten's most dramatic work since his 1945 opera, Peter Grimes. Indeed, Britten first used a chamber orchestra as a foil to the main forces in his operas, perhaps as a vehicle to make his declamatory text settings easy to understand. But it is a choral work, in which the chorus must carry the weight of the Latin text's drama. When the chorus is outnumbered by the orchestra, 106 to 88, there will be problems of balance. While the quieter passages were effective, the Dies Irae and Sanctus were not, simply because the choral sound was overwhelmed by the orchestral volume.
The highlight of the evening was the exquisite performance by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who brought to Wilfred Owen's war poetry an emotionally-moving and musically-gratifying insight which brought to mind the early 1960's performances by tenor Peter Pears, Britten's lifetime partner and musical colleague. Soprano Christine Goerke, singing from the rear of the stage at the front of the chorus, had no trouble being heard; her strong, clear voice soared above choir and orchestra in the Sanctus and provided an exciting "et timeo" line, with its high-C ending, in the Libera me. Baritone Nathan Gunn, while vocally in good form, seemed somehow detached from the intensity of Owen's texts, with the exception of his recitative-like passages in the poem "Strange Meeting," which captured the poignancy of that text. (The text of this poem and the closing Latin In Paradisum were curiously omitted from the program's libretto, which also had several typographical errors showing a need for a proof-reader conversant with Latin.) Gunn's three-syllable pronunciation of "bugles," which he sang as "be-you-gulls," was a unique diphthong.
The orchestra handled the difficult score well, although the judgment-day fanfares of the Dies Irae showed some insecurities in the brass section and the quintuplet rhythms in the Libera me came out more as triplets. The chamber orchestra, in particular, played with sensitivity in their accompaniments to the English poetry. The chorus, while lacking the vocal power to match the orchestral sound, sang with confidence and with some beautiful tones in the quieter passages.
The Raleigh Boychoir filled its role in the drama well, the boys' voices providing a spatial element to the music as they sang from the balcony. While they do not sound like a traditional English boychoir, their sound being less expansive, they nevertheless sang with clarity and did well with both the Latin text and Britten's rhythms.
It is a credit to the University of North Carolina that their musicians are exposed both to this music and to its message: at some point in human civilization, we must learn that wars are not a civilized solution to anything. Britten, an ardent pacifist, drives this point home in his magisterial pairing of Owen's WW I poetry (the "war to end all wars," it was called then) with the ancient text of the Missa pro Defunctis, the "Mass for the Dead." To have been part of this performance should leave an indelible mark on each singer and instrumentalist, as well as members of the audience; thanks to Carolina Performing Arts and the UNC musicians for bringing the War Requiem to Chapel Hill.