Wednesday, January 30, 2008
War Requiem Storms Disney Hall
Perhaps it's only appropriate that the weekend of performances of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" was the raniest of the season. After all, the piece is a torrent of dissonance without resolution, and vocal and orchestral textures that are one second awe inspiring in their scope, and the next stunning in their sparseness. In a space like Disney Hall, with it's arc-like shape and even cathedral-like arrangement, Maazel's reading of the religiously contradicting piece came across almost as an affront to the circumstances.
The near-80 conductor was detached, and cool. One noticed that he did not sprint to the podium, but walked with a slight limp, and throughout the 80 minute piece, he would lean and rest an arm on the support bar on the back of the podium. Maazel was in charge of the main orchestra, choruses and soprano soloist, all of which sing the portion of the Requiem that is in the traditional Latin. Maazel's detachment was masterful. He gave the religious portion of the requiem as a Catholic priest reading the fire and brimstone, not as an evangelical. The Dies Irae does not need hysterics on the podium. The true terror is in the music. The gunfire and modern weapons of destruction are heard in the rhythmic attack of chorus and brass. One felt impending apocalypse as an inevitability of weapons and war. The L.A. Phil played with stunning sensitivity and ensemble. The L.A. Master Chorale and L.A. Children's Chorus were both top notch, and well prepared. The focused sound was never forced, and carried for days in Disney Hall with an ideal choral sonority of beauty and precision. Soprano Nancy Gustafson was a disappointment. She was placed in the organ loft, which added an innovative flare to the entire production. Evenso, the voice was laborious and the phrases were choppy. Inexplicably, she sang the majority of her music with her hands clasped behind her back. The vocal assurance of a singer like Christine Brewer would have been ideal.
The chamber orchestra was placed upstage left, with the tenor and baritone soloists standing downstage of them. The small band was masterfully led by the young Lionel Bringuier. The tenor and baritone, Vale Rideout and Ian Greenlaw, respectively, were impressive in their dramatic command of the poems of Wilfred Owen, and their diction was impeccable, even in (literally) the last row of Disney Hall. Rideout sang brilliantly, with a secure and ringing tenor that he tenderly applied in some of the most memorable moments of the concert. Greenlaw sang robustly, but his top was over-covered, which made him virtually inaudible during some of the densest orchestrations. Both singers were at an acoustical disadvantage due to their positions. Overall, their contributions were satisfactory, and appropriate to the text.
Towards the end of the piece, all forces shined in "Let us sleep now..." The tenor and baritone sang some of the most lyrical phrases of the evening, and the choral forces sang their Latin conclusion with breathtaking intensity and hushed assurance. The piece finally resolves the tritone that has reared its devilish horns all evening in one of the most sublime choral finales ever written. All lights in the house were very slowly drawn down as the chorus concluded with "Requiescant in pace. Amen, Amen." and the jarring bells had their final say. The podium was the focus of the final light, and before the final cutoff, that light too was extinguished. The piece literally died away into empty darkness. Despite the former enemies' meeting and reconciliation after death, Britten does not offer hope. Only sleep and the inevitability of death. Owen and Britten warn against war, but one gets the feeling that there is not much optimism from the creators.
The audience gave several silent seconds before applause began to break through the uneasy silence. Perhaps the stormy weather, or the storm of Britten's music was too much. Chorus members left throughout the performance (one was apparently sick), as well as several audience members. Confronted with the subject of war and its futility can be uncomfortable enough. Add the stormy weather and Britten's hauntingly honest music, and it can be downright disaffirming. I think that is exactly what Britten intended, and all involved indubitably achieved.