The Washington Chorus opened its 53rd season with heavy fare in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, celebrating the British composer’s 100th Anniversary and showcasing the talents of the chorus and its musical peers to the highest caliber.
War Requiem is a behemoth in both size and length, requiring the talents of no less than a full mixed chorus, a Boys Chorus, a full orchestra, a second chamber orchestra, organ, and three solo vocalists, in a performance lasting almost ninety minutes, with no intermission. A grand piece, undoubtedly, but not one unfamiliar to this group, for The Washington Chorus previously won the Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance in 2000 for its live performance recording of this very work.
Britten wrote War Requiem in 1961 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, the original of which had been bombed in World War II. Composed in memoriam of the perished soldiers of both WWI and WWII, his personal views as a pacifist are fully accentuated. The themes of violence, war, the futility of both, and wasteful death do not only pervade the work, but fabricate every aspect of it.
War Requiem is a multi-layered, delicate art. In its purest form, it is a Requiem Mass, celebrating the souls of the dead, but interspersed with the traditional Latin offering are nine poems by Wilfred Owen sung in English, each on the subject of war. Owen was a young British soldier and poet who tragically died in World War I, leaving behind a small but influential body of poems detailing the stark realism of war on the front.
In addition to it’s division into six movements, War Requiem is structured on three planes: a background of liturgical music, purposefully distant, with the Boys Choir and organ; a middle ground of more standard and expressive liturgical Latin from the soprano, mixed chorus, and full orchestra; and an intimate foreground solely focused on Owen’s English poems, sung by solo tenor and baritone, with the isolated chamber orchestra.
Guided by the baton of Music Director Julian Wachner, the chorus opens in soft mellifluous repetitions of “requiem aeternam (rest eternal).” The harsh clang of dissonant bells – a returning motif – heralds the funeral march that the score represents.
Suddenly, a pause. The innocent falsetto of angels – the Children’s Chorus of Washington led by Artistic Director Joan Gregoryk – surprising all with its entrance from the high back balcony. Pause again as the boys’ voices fall away and the solo tenor, the talented and prolific Vale Rideout, begins the first of Owen’s poems. In a similar vein throughout, the poems are recited almost free form, musically and rhythmically, sometimes with a prevailing moment of anger and passion, but more often with a muted sadness.
The second movement, “Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)”, is just so, starting staccato, fast, and urgent. Chorus layers its voices across the vocal range as it pushes the articulated Latin singing of judgment day. The Baritone vocalist, this time, interrupts the previous rapid pace with another of Owen’s poem, this time alluding to heavenly judgments rather than blatantly of war. Baritone Christopher Burchett gives a wonderfully human performance, the emotion almost dripping from his words. But he is soon overtaken in another change of pace as Jessica Muirhead, the solo soprano with a haunting, floating voice leads the mixed chorus into yet another plane of the multilayered work.
Only in the last few minutes of movement six, “Libera Me (Deliver Me),” do the three vocal planes intersect as they sing across each other of death, rest, and deliverance, ending on the final, traditional, “Requiescant in pace. Amen. (May they rest in peace. Amen)”, of its original form, the requiem mass.
Though a heavy, melancholic, and serious piece, War Requiem is an unbelievably momentous undertaking that reflects a maturity of many different types: technique, style, comprehension, and appreciation. The performance of War Requiem tonight signals that The Washington Chorus is capable, talented, and a vocal powerhouse with much more to show this season.
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
The Washington Chorus’s War Requiem was performed for one-night-only on November 3, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall– 2700 F St NW, in Washington, DC. For future performances of The Washington Chorus, check their calendar of events.