Monday evening’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Symphony Hall follows on the centennial of the composer’s birth last year and centennial of the outbreak of World War I this past summer. Despite its composition nearly half a century after World War I, the Requiem is indelibly tied to this conflict: Britten interleaves the poetry of Wilfred Owen (killed in battle a week before Armistice) with the text from Catholic requiem mass.
The scope of the Requiem is much larger than a World War I memorial. The was written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, more than two decades after the medieval structure was fire-bombed by a German raid. The modernist structure for which the War Requiem was commissioned maintained the bombed ruins of the old cathedral as a fundamental part of the new structure—a conscious reminder of the ravages of war. Britten makes this conversation – between a ruined past and a grinding new–the central idiom of the War Requiem. The work largely follows the form of the Catholic mass, and is divided into the constitutive movements of the service for the dead. The mass’ Latin text is assigned to the full chorus and orchestra but is continually interrupted by interjections of Owen’s poetry. This interplay between liturgy and modern poetry—new and old—is at the core of the work’s pacifist message: a constant reminder of the horrors of modern battle and technological war amid the strange comfort afforded by an ancient religion.
The burden of conducting the massive Requiem was split among the three directors on Monday evening’s performance, with Jarrett bearing the brunt of the load in leading the substantial numbers of the Symphony and Chorus along with soloist Amanda Pabyan. David Hoose led a smaller ensemble that shared the stage and largely supported tenor soloist William Hite and baritone soloist David Kravitz. As conductor of BU’s Marsh Chapel, Jarrett’s familiarity with choral music and textures was evident on Monday evening’s performance. Jarrett led the Symphony and Chorus masterfully, sensitively supporting the rich choral texture that is so often drowned by Britten’s extended orchestra. More expressive passages saw some loss of articulation, but the sacrifice was well-worth the moving read coaxed out by Jarrett. Transitions between the larger ensemble and the soloists were, as a rule, seamless. Michele Adams led the Boston Children’s Chorus and organ (sensitively played by Julia Carey) which was positioned in the back of the second balcony of Symphony Hall.
The arrangement of the three ensembles in Symphony Hall was a thoughtful detail to the performance. The split narratives in Britten’s piece were literally placed side-by-side in front of the audience, spatializing the conversation between Owen’s poetry and the Catholic mass. The positioning of the children’s chorus at the rear of the hall was disorienting at first (heads turned in the opening Requiem aeternam, as treble chorus sang “Te decet hymnus”) but was also strangely effective throughout the work. I found their interaction with the tenor and bass soloists in the Offertorium particularly effective: Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and Young” retells the biblical story of Abraham and sacrifice of Isaac. While in the biblical story, an angel interferes and a ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac, in Owens’s setting, Abraham ignores angel and brutally kills his son and “half the seed of Europe one by one.” This final line is obsessively repeated by the tenor and baritone soloists in shell-shocked horror, and is paired with the children’s chorus, singing the Hostias et preces tibi passage of the mass set in a playful, nursery-rhyme-like melody. Sung from the back of the hall on Monday, PALS’s line was distant and faint—a memory of long-ago childhood that was intermittently and violently interrupted by the immediate and present stuttering horror of Owens’s poem—a shocking reminder of war’s horror by the innocence it destroys.
Significant solo work is crucial to Monday evening’s considerable successes. David Kravitz has an ample baritone that paired nicely with William Hite’s nuanced and subtle tenor. In duet, I found the pairing odd, but effective—particularly in the Offertorium, the balance between the two soloists sometimes favored Hite, who tended to overpower Kravitz, but on the whole, provided a delightful read of the piece. Also memorable was the collaboration on Owens’s “Out there” in the Dies Irae, which placed both voices on equal footing. On solo passages, Hite has a well-tempered, lyrical sound that was able to convey emotion with an eerie effect. Kravitz’s baritone showed remarkable range both emotionally and musically. Soprano Amanda Pabyan, performing with the BU Chorus on stage has a dramatic sound that cut through the choral and orchestral textures, particularly in the Sanctus and Dies Irae movements.
Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.