Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Peter Kazaras, tenor
Kurt Ollman, baritone
Neal Gittleman, conductor
Benjamin Britten's War Requiem resounded fervently and movingly Sunday afternoon at the Oscar Mayer Theater, performed by the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus, the Madison Boychoir and soloists, Neal Gittleman conducting. It was apparently the fourth time this titanic work has been heard here. I was present for Robert Fountain's exciting reading in 1986, but I felt this performance to be more delicately balanced, more subtlely shaded, more pious in some central way, contrasting with the raw, overwhelming power of that earlier hearing.
I must admit the War Requiem puts me in a peculiar emotional state, an ineffable sadness that lasts a long time. It's so affecting that afterwards I'm unable to bear simple conversation with friends. This performance, if anything, heightened that sense of vulnerability to the suffering and destructiveness of war, as real today as it was for those of us who lived through World War II and that ever-shrinking few who witnessed the time of World War I. This last group will remember when the poems of Wilfred Owen first sounded the bitter harvest of senseless patriotism, first-hand reports from the battlefield on which he himself died a week before the Armistice in 1918.
Owen's elegaic but ironic comments on our follies are interposed between and comingled with large blocks of the Latin Mass for the Dead. The poems are sung by tenor (Peter Kazaras) and baritone (Kurt Ollman), accompanied by a chamber orchestra, while the Mass is sounded by the full orchestra and chorus with a soprano solo voice (Jeanette Thompson). All three soloists were outstanding. The boy's choir makes a somewhat removed, disembodied contribution of devotion, in this case from the balcony. Perhaps it sounds complicated because it it complicated. One reason the work is not heard often is that it takes unusually large forces and it is extremely difficult, especially for the singers.
Britten wrote the War Requiem for the reconsecration of St. Michael's in Coventry, in 1962. The force of Owen's intensely moving poetry was even then a comment on the horrors of wars and holocausts and needless deaths and sufferings, somehow straining to redeem humanity by appealing to the universal idea of requiescant in pace -- let them rest in peace. The extent to which we have failed to be even marginally civilized is easily measured today in Bosnia, where World War I began, and in the flailings of a dying empire in Chechniya. So perhaps it is hard not to resonate with this manifestly pacifist work -- one of the greatest choral compositions of our entire century -- and to be moved by Britten's extraordinary melodic gifts as he sounds out the stricken voice from the other side of this life: "I am the enemy you killed, my friend."
It is certainly a great achievement for Gittleman, to have mounted a near-perfect performance of this uniquely challenging piece. Despite having his players and singers arrayed across every square inch of the expanded stage, he managed to turn it all into one place from which poured forth an unremittingly impassioned expression of sad piety. There was a short but definite silence at the end, while the world once again took familiar shape and applause brought people to their feet. I hope what was carried away was this: "The pity of war, the pity war distilled."
Isthmus, January, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson