Kalmar, Grant Park forces fete Britten in style with powerful “War Requiem”

June 29, 2013

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra, Chorus and soloists in Britten’s “War Requiem” Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Norman Timonera

On November 14, 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by the German Luftwaffe in a bombing raid that left St. Michael’s Cathedral, a magnificent 14th-century Gothic church, reduced to ruins.

At the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral 22 years later, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem—commissioned for the occasion—received its world premiere, where it won instant international acclaim and remains one of the composer’s most celebrated works.

Marking this 100th anniversary year of Britten’s birth, Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in a moving and powerful performance of Britten’s oratorio Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. The work will be repeated tonight and is not an event to miss.

Dedicated to four deceased friends of Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, the War Requiem is uniquely structured. The English composer intersperses the Latin requiem mass for the dead with the searing, extraordinary poems of Wilfred Owen, the English poet who was killed in action in the final week of World War I. The work is scored for vast forces, including tenor and baritone soloists who perform the Owen settings accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, set off from a soprano who joins the chorus for the Latin texts with the large principal orchestra. An offstage children’s choir adds eerie and unearthly counterpoint accompanied by organ.

Though the War Requiem is Britten’s most public work, in many ways, it also counts among his most personal statements reflecting the composer’s contradictory impulses—an uneasy nationalism and ambivalent Christianity allied to a firmly pacifist, antiwar stance.

Carlos Kalmar is one of those rare podium leaders who never seems to have an off night, yet the Grant Park Orchestra’s principal conductor is at his finest in big works for orchestra and chorus. So it proved again Friday night, with Kalmar marshaling the large forces into a profound and shattering performance that conveyed the grand choral moments as well as the intimate human scale of Britten’s work. Even the weather gods cooperated, with the rain stopping shortly before concert time and the heavy downpour coming after the performance had ended.

Kalmar led his forces with keen concentration and surging momentum throughout this epic music. In a work that can seem sectional, Kalmar’s firm pulse and sense of the long line ensured that passages followed seamlessly, the vast, 85-minute structure unfolding as a single arc.

Even by their elevated standard, the playing of the Grant Park Orchestra was remarkable across all sections from the off-kilter brass fanfares of the Dies Irae, to the wide-ranging percussion, characterful woodwinds and polished string playing with sensitive violin solos from concertmaster Jeremy Black leading the chamber orchestra.

Much of the success of the performance was due to the Grant Park Chorus and three terrific soloists, who conveyed the profound depths and ambivalence of this multifaceted score.

Erin Wall’s resplendent soprano handled the often-tortuous leaps of her solos with ease, soaring over the huge orchestra even in the most clamorous passages of the Libera me. At times one wanted a bit more expressive variety and engagement with the text, but the Ryan Opera Center alum’s singing was technically immaculate, her creamy soprano always a pleasure on the ears.

Jeremy Ovenden brought crystal-clear diction and affecting vulnerability to his solos, the English tenor’s high sweet tone and idiomatic singing consistently illuminating Owen’s poetry. Bass-baritone Alan Held was on the same level, singing with a sonorous voice and stentorian authority allied to a lieder-like care for words.  The final duet for the two men where the enemies meet each other as friends in death was as beautifully sung as it was quietly devastating.

While words could have been clearer at times, the singing of Christopher Bell’s Grant Park Chorus was consistently vital and intensely committed, conveying the mystery of the opening Requiem aeternam as surely as the vehement terror of the Dies irae. The sopranos provided the requisite cooling balm at the start of the Recordare, and the entire chorus proved majestic in the Hosanna and overwhelming in sonic impact in the Libera me. The Chicago Children’s Choir, directed by Josephine Lee, delivered secure and atmospheric vocalism in their offstage contributions.

Britten’s War Requiem will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Admission is free. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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