Monday April 22nd, 2013 - The Oratorio Society of New York presented a performance of Benjamin Britten's WAR REQUIEM at Carnegie Hall this evening.
One of the greatest and most meaningful choral works ever created, the WAR REQUIEM was commissioned for the re-dedication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962; the church had been almost totally destroyed by German bombs in 1940. Britten, a life-long pacifist, drew on the poetry of Wilfred Owen - who had been killed in 1918 (one week before the Armistice ended the war) at the age of 25 while fighting in France - as well as the texts of the Latin mass for the dead in setting his masterpiece. Though deeply spiritual in atmosphere, Britten intended the WAR REQUIEM to be a secular work.
The Oratorio Society, one of New York City's oldest cultural treasures, traces its history back to 1873. Founded by Leopold Damrosch, the Society presented their first concert on December 3, 1873. One year later, on Christmas night, the Society began what has become an unbroken tradition of annual performances of Handel's Messiah. In 1891, the Oratorio Society participated in the opening concert of what is now Carnegie Hall.
The chorus and musicians of the Society under Kent Tritle's baton tonight unfurled the sonic tapestry of Britten's creation in a performance which greatly satisfied both the ear and the soul. In the composer's structuring of the REQUIEM, the large chorus and orchestra - supporting a soprano soloist - sing the Latin texts of the mass while a chamber orchestra (led by David Rosenmeyer) accompanies the tenor and baritone soloists whose words come from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. From high up in a side balcony, the voices of children from the choir of Saint John The Divine (directed by Malcolm Merriweather) provide an angelic sound, accompanied by a small organ.
Britten's score, richly textured, amazes in its rhythmic and instrumental variety. Marked by off-kilter harmonies and shifting tonalities, the music is grand and theatrical one moment and poignantly stark and personal the next. The juxtaposition of public mourning and private grief - and of the liturgical and poetic texts - give the REQUIEM its unique resonance.
Of the three vocal soloists, soprano Emalie Savoy (currently a Met Young Artist) revealed a sizeable lyric instrument with a blooming high register and a capacity to dominate the massed choral and orchestral forces. Tenor John Matthew Myers sang with a plaintive, clear and warm timbre while baritone Jesse Blumberg gave a wonderfully expressive rendering of the texts, his voice hauntingly coloured in his long final solo.
At the close of the piece, all the participants were warmly lauded by the audience.
"My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn." ~ Wilfred Owen
Now, nearly a century after the poet's warning, mankind continues to use war as a means of settling religious and ideological differences. This evening's concert fell on Earth Day, reminding us of the fragility of the planet on which we all live. Only by turning away from gods and politics - those great dividing forces - can we hope to find a path into a safe and meaningful future. Like the poet's two soldiers from opposing armies who find themselves dying side by side in a ditch far from their homes as the REQUIEM draws to a close, we must learn to embrace our common humanity before it's too late.
The evening's participating artists will were:
Kent Tritle, conductor
David Rosenmeyer, chamber orchestra conductor
Emalie Savoy, soprano
John Matthew Myers, tenor
Jesse Blumberg, baritone
Choristers of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Malcolm Merriweather, conductor
Chorus and Orchestra of the Society