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Robert Spano Leads Britten's Haunting War Requiem at Carnegie Hall

by James Rosenfield

War Requiem, Carnegie Hall, Atlanta Symphony

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito, The New York Times

Shostakovich reportedly called Britten's War Requiem the greatest work of the 20th century. It's certainly one of the most harrowing—mourning both world wars, the first remembered in Wilfred Owen's poetry, the second by the occasion of its premiere, at the 1962 consecration of the bomb-shattered Coventry Cathedral.

At Carnegie Hall Thursday night, Robert Spano led the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus in an appropriately apocalyptic account of this enormous work, joined by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, tenor Thomas Cooley (a last-minute yet most adequate substitution for the indisposed Anthony Dean Griffin), baritone Stephen Powell, and soprano Evelina Dobraceva.

During his 13-year tenure with the Atlanta Symphony, Spano has gained enormous maturity as a conductor, and the orchestra itself has joined the first rank. Spano threw himself into the music, whipping the orchestra and chorus into what seemed to be a barely controlled frenzy during tutti passages, and seamlessly pulling back into relative delicacy when a chamber-sized orchestra accompanied the Wilfred Owen poems sung by the tenor and baritone soloists. The sense of rapport between conductor, orchestras large and small, and chorus was palpable.

Is there a greater chorus in the U.S. than the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus? With its rich tradition stemming from the late Music Director Robert Shaw, it is an instrument of grace, power, beauty, and, most importantly, clarity—almost any other chorus would benefit from studying diction with them.

The chorus alone was worth the proverbial price of admission; anyone who admires choral music has to be overhwelmed at its precision and tonal perfection. Bittten was a master of choral writing, so it's most fitting that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus performed at the finale of Carnegie's Britten Centenary celebration.

Britten's radical structural innovation in the War Requiem was to intersperse the poetry of Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin mass, contrasting highly personal grief with traditional terror and the promise of resurrection. (Although it's doubtful that Britten, a non-believer, had faith in the raising of the dead.)

The traditional Requiem is scary enough: the "Dies irae" (Day of Reckoning), after all, is not a walk in the park, and Britten often uses variations of the original, ancient tune. But even more frighteningly, in the "Offertorium," the baritone intones the poem "So Abram rose," which turns the biblical account on its head, with Abraham ignoring God and killing Isaac.

Baritone and tenor also sing Owen's most famous poem, "It seemed that out of battle I escaped," with its half-rhymes suggesting an end to coherent articulation. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend / I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned . . ." The most compelling solo vocal performances of the evening, Cooley and Powell became vocally intertwined, dramatizing Owen's bonding of the two soldiers into eternity.

Powell's middle range could have been stronger, but he especially excelled in the tenor-baritone duos. Soprano Evelina Dobracena was outstanding throughout, almost always singing with—and through, with her very powerful voice—full orchestra and chorus. She was outright terrifying in the first part of the "Libera me," the final section of the work, which wonderfully contrasted the hushed ending, when the boys' choir (the impeccable Brooklyn Youth Chorus, in fact, includes all genders) angelically intoned "Amen" while perched on high in the rafters of the Carnegie balcony.