As I made my way back up to Avery Fisher Hall for the 2nd time in less than 48 hours yesterday afternoon to hear the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, I struggled with the Why of this concert. As in: why now perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, a stirring-yet-solemn piece of 20th century music filled with imagery of the horrors of war? What, if anything, did this challenging masterpiece have to do with current events, or the White Light Festival's overarching promise of asylum from the harsh reality of everyday life?
For those unfamiliar with it, the War Requiem was written just shy of 50 years ago for the rededication of England's Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed by German pilots in World War II. Britten's conceit was to alternate the traditional text of the Requiem mass - already immortalized in music by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi, among many others - with the searing, visionary poetry of Wilfred Owen: a British soldier killed in World War I at the age of 25 and considered to be one of the greatest war poets of all time. Owen's imagery is haunting, disturbing, and completely unforgettable:
"None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even from wells we sunk too deep for war..."
(See this video for more background.)
Whatever reservations I had going into this performance were washed away the moment it began: the dark, haunting strains of the Reqiuem aeternam, the thunderous clamor of the Dies irae, the triumphant fanfare at the center of the Sanctus, and finally, the uncertain solace of the In Paradisum. As remarkable as the LSO and Chorus were on Friday night, here they were simply miraculous, investing every phrase with absolute clarity and conviction. No surprise, really, given that these were the same forces that performed the War Reqiuem under Britten's own baton for the landmark Decca recording made less than six months after the premiere. The LSO owns this music, no less than Vienna can lay rightful claim to Bruckner, or Berlin to Brahms. Britten is in their blood.
That same English pride was conspicuously present in two of yesterday's soloists: the remarkable Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Simon Keenlyside (baritone), both of whom sang with the crisp energy and unfettered emotion of great actors. Joining them was the Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak: a relative newcomer who delivered her lines from the rear of the orchestra with an almost feline fury. Rounding out the monumental forces onstage was the terrific American Boychoir, singing from just beyond the stage left door.
Holding everything together was the Italian conductor Giananedra Noseda, replacing Sir Colin Davis who, at 84, was advised by his doctors to step down from this difficult, demanding work. (Sir Colin did manage to conduct both of the other concerts on this NY visit, including Friday's historic Missa Solemnis.) No mean pinch hitter, Noseda - best known as an opera conductor at places like the Met and the Teatro Regio di Torino - lit things up with a tightly-controlled performance that ranged from hushed sonority to deafening roar.
For my money, this was hands down the greatest performance of the War Requiem I've ever heard, which includes performances by everyone from the Boston Symphony to the NY Phil. It was bold, sincere, a triumph in every sense of the word. For 90 minutes, I lost all track of space and time, completely in thrall with the artistry of these 300+ musicians who had fully invested themselves in this overpowering music. Which, at least in part, is precisely what the White Light Festival hopes to achieve.
I can't wait to hear what's next. (More pics below and on the photo page.)