Sunday, May 4, 2014

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - Britten - 04/30/14

Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Tenor: Thomas Cooley
Soprano: Evelina Dobraceva
Baritone: Stephen Powell

Just because Benjamin Britten's centennial celebrations are officially over does not mean that his music can no longer be enjoyed, so it is with endless excitement that I joined by my friends Dawn and Linden at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium on Wednesday evening for his monumental War Requiem, which would be performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus and three soloists. Not exactly the perfect pick-me-up in terms of cheerfulness, especially after a gloomy day of non-stop rain, but an irresistible promise of 90 glorious minutes of music, singing, liturgical Latin text and secular English poetry, all in the name of peace.

Commissioned in 1960 for the dedication ceremony of the new Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in World War II, in England, Britten's War Requiem was an ambitious and unusual, yet readily accessible, endeavor. For this particular occasion, the die-hard pacifist had the brilliant idea to use some works by Wilfred Owen, the English poet and soldier who died in battle right before the Armistice of World War I at 25, but not before writing some viscerally gripping poems about the horror and absurdity of war. Interspersed in the traditional Latin Mass and soberly sung by the tenor and baritone over a chamber orchestra, those first-hand accounts of the battle field were an adroit way to carry out the composer's compelling statement as purposefully as possible.
On Wednesday night, those snapshots were capably rendered by tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Stephen Powell, who brought the right amount of sensitiveness to their parts. On the other hand, soprano Evelina Dobraceva increasingly rose above the choral fray with a strong, polished and assertive voice. Standing out against the mighty chorus was no easy task, but she consistently came out loud and clear.
Even for all the unquestionable impact of the poetic snapshots, the two choruses turned out to be the real winners of the evening for me. For one, the sprawling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus sang with remarkable unity and handled a wide range of dynamics with force and aplomb. Nowhere was this well-oiled yet intensely emotional machine more impressive than in the take-no-prisoners moments of "Sanctus" and "Libera me". (Although this last bit was obviously not enough drama for the young guy to my right, who out of the blue pulled out his smart phone, checked his voice mail and actually started to make a call until I had him notice that, err, there was a performance going on.)
The other singing ensemble of the evening was the smaller in scale, but just as powerful on impact, group of boys from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who sang from the upper balcony of the auditorium. From their remote spot, they softly but surely impersonated the loss of innocence to memorable celestial effect.
Needless to say, all that singing, regardless of its attention-grabbing quality, did not manage to completely distract us from Britten's haunting score. Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' music director and conductor for the evening, did not shy away from the complexity of the music, but he rather let it speak for itself in a truly beautiful performance that was respectful, well-controlled and still straight from the heart. Which made our eventual return to a cold reality of raging wind and pounding rain even more dreadful. Après Britten, le déluge!

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