Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

By Douglas Neslund

He stood as in prayer, for a long half minute after the final tritone wafted out into Walt Disney Concert Hall while over two thousand hearts beat as one, half afraid to breathe and half not wanting to break the sacred stillness. Finally, James Conlon lowered his baton to allow tumultuous release of the collective tension.

The vehicle for this triumph was Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Opus 66, arguably the greatest composition of the 20th century, but elevated by Maestro Conlon pre-performance to one of the monuments of music of all time.

Benjamin Britten
Britten’s 100th centenary is drawing to a close, and his music has been heard by many organizations throughout the year. The impact of this man’s creative genius has been rightfully elevated to new heights.

The impressions left by War Requiem are deeply felt through the perfect marriage of his music and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, himself a victim of World War I, a poet who would certainly have been Britain’s poet laureate of the time had he survived just one more week, bits of Scripture, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and Britten’s own pacifist convictions (reversing the Abrahamic story of the imminent sacrifice of Isaac by slaying his son … “and half the seed of Europe, one by one” … instead of the proffered Ram of Pride, and in so doing, pointing a dagger of condemnation at the rulers of the countries involved in the “war to end all wars.”)

Wilfred Owen
This perfect amalgam of inspired genius requires a large orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a large adult choir, a children’s choir, and three soloists. The original cast was purposefully drawn from enemy countries in World War II: the Soviet Union, Germany and the United Kingdom; the intended soloists, Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Britten’s long-term partner, Peter Pears, with the premiere performance taking place in a bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Subsequent performances spread throughout the world.

On this occasion, the artists were: The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC Thornton Symphony; participating choirs included: USC Thornton Chamber Singers, USC Thornton Concert Choir, Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton University Singers, Chapman University Singers, New Zealand Youth Choir, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. All singers were superbly prepared by their own respective directors and assembled by LA Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon, delivering a marvelous feast of often challenging music. The instrumentalists were in as close to professional form as pre-professional players could possibly be. To single out any individual or orchestral choir would be unfair to the rest, but the brass and percussion were simply marvelous, as was the chamber orchestra and leader Radu Paponiu. Bravi tutti !

Maestro Conlon
Throughout the performance, Maestro Conlon maintained tight control over the assembled performers, with the assistance of Anne Tomlinson in the highest balcony with her “angelic host” representing the souls of war dead with just the right touch of other-worldly innocence and separation from the horrors of war. They were accompanied on the organ by Christoph Bull. Considering the vast distance between the children in the highest balcony and Mr. Bull sitting on stage, coordination was not easily achieved.

Perhaps no trio of soloists will be able to replicate the original trio, probably because so many have heard the iconic recording produced in 1963 that left such an indelible impression. But the three soloists at this event were of high quality. One could quibble about tenor Joseph Kaiser’s quavery delivery of the final phrase of Dona nobis pacem that Peter Pears made forever the standard, but as drama, Mr. Kaiser achieved his own measure of success. Baritone Phillip Addis displayed a voice rich in tone and textual awareness; he and Mr. Kaiser bracketed the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamera Wilson was placed, as in the original, up in the front-center of the chorus women. Such placement tends, even in acoustically excellent Walt Disney Concert Hall, to dissolve low-tessitura passages into the multitudes around her and the orchestra in front of her, so that her impact lay in the high-altitude opportunities, such as the opening of the Sanctus. One would have liked to hear her down onstage with the gentlemen.

Aside from one choral entrance of the sopranos that appeared to be missed, the music making was superb. For those whose choral “ears” are attuned to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, one had to remind oneself that maturity adds weight to a voice, and any comparison with these relative youth only demonstrates how great their training has been; the future of choral music is bright.

Britten’s truly creepy orchestra scoring of the duet “Strange Meeting” sets up a metaphorical encounter of killer and killed in the afterlife. After a few exchanges, one states, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” while the children’s chorus chants In Paradisum. What a profound cross-reference of text and music! It would be difficult to find in all serious music the equal in context and drama.

For all the underlying irony and bitterness of music and text, Britten interjects moments of pure, radiant joy, as in the Hosanna of the Sanctus, thus giving yet another dimension to the drama. Yet the first sound we hear is also the last: that dreaded tritone, an augmented fourth interval: C to F#, and with that, the War Requiem ends as it begins, steeped in fear of futile, future wars.

Photos from Wikipedia from various sources

Monday, November 4, 2013

Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra perform Verdi and Orff

 By Douglas Neslund

There is no subtle way to unleash or finish Carl Orff’s popular Carmina burana in performance. From the very downbeat of O Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune), one gets a lap- and earful of youthful fun and games set to full chorus and orchestra by Carl Orff, the Bavarian composer better known in some quarters for his elementary music education system. In Carmina, Orff seeks to evoke basic emotional involvement through unapologetic, driving rhythms (early minimalism!) and exotic instrumentation and vocalisms.

Orff found the manuscripts in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, not (as noted elsewhere) in the Benedictine Abbey in Benediktbeuern, a quaintly beautiful bend in the Bavarian road from Munich to Northern Italy via Austria, despite the town’s name in the title. How the Latin and Middle High German texts arrived in Benediktbeuern from their likely beginnings in Kloster Neustift in Brixen, a German-speaking village of Northern Italy, is unknown.

Kloster Neustift, Brixen, Italy
In any case, it is thought that goliards, unemployed youth of the day, spread the genre throughout civilized Europe. As a generation, they were not unlike Occupy youth of today, openly criticizing both civil and clerical authority through satirical poetry and prose.

The 24 poems and narratives chosen by Orff from the original 254 is that of bawdy sex and backgammon, and in some cases probably not the actual stuff of monks’ life in 13th century Alpine Europe. In fact, it is thought by some that texts appearing to be “love songs” are really satirical tributes or spoofs of the dead, or even the Church itself.

Soloists in Carmina burana on this evening of glorious choral and orchestral music-making were Stacey Tappan, a soprano capable of singing the very wide ranging score; José Adán Pérez, a baritone who emoted appropriately (that is, the entire time, including stage entrances and exits) and displayed a ringing voice spoiled by too many out-of-tune entrances; and Timothy Gonzales, who portrayed the dying goose on the spit with equal portions of self parody and helpless falsetto.

Although Orff’s manuscript stipulates a boys’ choir in two of the movements, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, director), were employed in that role. Interestingly, the composer stated to Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, the director of the Tölzer Knabenchor prior to the premiere performance and recording, that it was his intention that the boys should sound like five- or six-year old “quackers” and not polished singers. In that regard, the LACC kids failed to quack, singing instead with their expected perfection of pitch, tone and absolutely unwiggly stage demeanor.

Steve Scharf assembled a wonderful orchestra for this happy occasion, proving once again that Los Angeles stands second to no other place on earth when it comes to world-class musicians. As we have said so many times throughout the past decade, the Los Angeles Master Chorale stands second to no other chorus on earth.

All of the above forces dedicated their infinite talents to Maestro Grant Gershon, whose attention to detail is phenomenal. Watching him work is a joy to behold. Nothing is missed, singers and players alike are never in doubt, and the result is as close to recording-session perfection as a live concert can possibly be. Finding new superlatives to describe Master Chorale performances is becoming ever more difficult!

The opening opus, minus the children’s chorus, was Giuseppe Verdi’s Te Deum, the last of four parts to his tetralogy Quattro pezzi sacri, composed in 1895-96 and published in Verdi’s 85th year (1898), a major work for double chorus and large orchestra.

The Te Deum is not a long work, but packs a mighty wallop where required. The Chorale women were particularly stunning on their several a cappella entrances.

The only reminders that we were not actually sitting in a recording session all happened within the space of a minute, just before intermission: a flubbed trumpet attack on a particular note brought to the audience’s attention by Maestro Gershon, a peculiar wobbly solo soprano, perhaps made even wobblier by the trumpet’s goof, and when the moment that was no longer magical ended, a cell phone in the audience rang on and on until applause drowned its ugly intrusion.

The two works on the program shared a common “wall of sound” fortissimo+ opportunity that, with the Master Chorale sitting in the benches above the staged orchestra, brilliantly showed the true acoustic balance of Walt Disney Concert Hall. (When the musicians are all down on stage, there can be a “sizzle” effect at least for those patrons sitting in the third balcony.) What we heard last night was astonishing clarity. The Master Chorale has, in recent years, been especially noted for clear textual enunciation, and last night, acoustic translucence was especially brilliant.


Finally, the usually brilliant program notes of Thomas May were sullied by discredited references to Nazism in which Orff was never a participant. No proof exists that he was interested in National Socialism in the slightest; if the Nazis loved his music, that is irrelevant. One would hope that such a canard and libelous reference would once and for all be omitted whenever Carmina burana is performed in the future.

Photo credits: Wikipedia from various sources