News & Features » Miscellany

The Richmond Symphony, Richmond Symphony Chorus and Greater Richmond Children's Choir tackle Benjamin Britten's epic "War Requiem."

Monumental Music

There are few large-scale works for orchestra and chorus that symphony-goers are most likely familiar with, great works such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the choral symphonies of Gustav Mahler. But "of all contemporary pieces there is none more haunting than Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem,'" says James Erb, director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. Richmonders will have a chance to experience this epic work performed by the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Symphony Chorus and the Greater Richmond Children's Choir, on Nov. 18 and 20 at the Carpenter Center. Composed for the dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962, Britten's final massive public statement was intended to be a commentary on the folly of war and on Britten's distaste for it. To achieve his goal, Britten created a piece of music centered on the six movements of the ancient requiem mass supplemented with nine gruesome poems by poet and World War I foot soldier, Wilfred Owen. "Britten puts together the porcelain Latin text of the funeral mass with the flesh and blood of Wilfred Owen's poetry," Erb explains. A confirmed pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, Britten set out through this gargantuan piece, not only to commemorate those whose lives were lost during the wars, but also as a denunciation of — perhaps even a funeral mass for — war itself. Born in Lowestoft, England, Britten spent World War II in exile in Canada and the United States, following the example of his hero. W.H. Auden, returning in 1942 to face a "conscientious objector's tribunal." "War Requiem, composed 20 years later, was an opportunity to publicly state his pacifist convictions in an extraordinary way. "Benjamin Britten," says conductor Mark Russell Smith, "is one of the most original voices that exists in 20th-century music." Tenor soloist Tracy Wellborn calls War Requiem "genius music." Many may know Britten's works for choir - "A Hymn to St. Cecilia," "The Saint Nicholas Cantata" and "A Ceremony of Carols," or his operas "Peter Grimes," "Billy Budd' and "The Turn of the Screw" — but "War Requiem" is perhaps Britten's most personal and dramatic statement. A massive work, "War Requiem" uses every possible musical component to heighten its drama. Aside from a huge orchestra — taxing the symphony's regular and extended performers - "War Requiem includes three soloists, a chamber orchestra, symphony chorus and children's choir accompanied by organ. Placed throughout the Carpenter Center, each element in the massed ensemble has its own role to play. The symphony and chorus are used throughout the work to propel the ancient Latin text of the funeral mass, as the soprano soloist (Camellia Johnson) weaves throughout it her lyric commentary. The tenor and baritone soloists (Tracy Welborn and Kevin McMillan) — the performers closest to the audience — sing the poetry of Wilfred Owen and represent the soldiers and victims of the war, as well as the composer's conscience. Finally, the children's choir — here, the Greater Richmond Children's Chorus under the direction of Hope Armsrong Erb — is set above and beyond the audience and "represents pure angelic voices," explains Smith. Perhaps the most challenging aspects of what tenor soloist Welborn calls a "fabulous, fabulous piece that is from another world sometimes," may be the depth of emotion and sheer drama. Soprano soloist Johnson confides that it has been both "a challenge and joy to learn and work with 'War Requiem.' "It is just so poignant," she continues. "War Requiem' is much more like a journey through that period" than simply a concert piece. About the timing of this piece so close to Veterans Day, Smith says, "musicians and artist need to connect with the public and comment on where we are in the world. … My whole idea in programming this piece was to end this last century of war with a piece which really sums up all the conflicting emotions of our century." Tenor soloist Tracy Welborn adds that "War Requiem" is so important because "it presents the human face of both sides of the war" and "counteracts the way modern media has made war a fantasy, rather than a reality." Despite the massive scope and complexity of the work, Smith promises that "no matter what the level of sophistication of the listener, this piece will haunt you," but "listeners shouldn't freak out about it. "I will not conduct a piece," says Smith, "that I don't truly believe in."

Add a comment