Sunday, February 10, 2008

"The pity of war"

The music of the Twentieth Century echoed through Seattle's concert halls this weekend.  Michael Stern and the Seattle Symphony started the weekend with performances of Edgard Varese's rarely heard Integrales, Victor Herbert's equally rare Cello Concerto No.2 and the romantic longing of Rachmaninov's Symphony No.3.  However, the real treat of the weekend was Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.  George Shangrow and his talented, home-grown Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers played the Requiem.  By most accounts the piece has not been heard in the Puget Sound for almost thirty years.

Two themes ran through both performances.  On the one hand, Varese and Britten were deeply impacted by the  carnage of war.  Varese was conscripted into the army before he fell ill and made his way to the United States.  Similarly, Benjamin Britten was a staunch conscientious objector who crafted his Requiem for the dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.  Britten also dedicated the piece to four friends who died during World War II.  The pessimism and renewal that follows a period of war are found in both pieces. 

Conversely, while Britten and Varese were taking music in new directions.  Varese exploding harmony and line in favor of "sound masses," rhythm and timbre and Britten later explored traditional forms in inventive ways, Sergei Rachmaninov and Victor Herbert seemingly clung to the old-fashioned, idioms of the past.   

Roughly 60 years separates the earliest work, Herbert's Cello Concerto No.2 (the earliest work) and the War Requiem (the latest).  The separation in time is not obvious.  Rachmaninov's symphony sounds as if it were composed contemporaneously with Herbert's concerto.  In fact, forty years separate the works.  Similarly, Varese's musicial idiom is so jarring that I suspect most listeners would not place the composition at the start of the last century.  Britten's War Requiem is just as elusive.    

Herbert's concerto seems obsolete in comparison to the work of his contemporaries (Debussy, Mahler, and Sibelius).  Nonetheless, as evidenced by his almost constant swaying and humming (?), guest cellist Lynn Harrell enjoyed the piece and so did the audience.  Harrell luxuriated in the work's artifice and the audience eagerly joined him on the ride.  Rachmaninov's Symphony No.3, composed less than a decade after Varese's uncomfortable Integrales, clings to the romantic sentiment that was being jettisoned by composers in Europe and America.  

Michael Stern is building a formidable career with the Kansas City Symphony by conducting pieces usually overlooked by larger, more well known orchestras.  This year alone, Stern is conducting excerpts from Berg's Wozzeck, Stephen Dankner's The Apocalypse of St. John, Lou Harrison's Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.1, Winter Dreams.  His recent release on Naxos of Gordon Shi-Wen Chin's Double Concerto has been favorably reviewed by music critiques. 

The collision of red state Missouri and Kansas is an unusual place for new and forgotten classical music to find an audience.  It's a development that should give Seattle pause.    

Britten's War Requiem ties the past and present together.  His dissonance is counterbalanced with haunting moods and abundant atmosphere.  Britten's affinity for vocal composition is credited with restoring English operatic and choral tradition.  The War Requiem synthesizes all of these traits into a profound piece of music.

Britten juxtaposed the traditional mass for the dead alongside the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen.  Discord and placidity coexist side by side.  Notably, the sheer volume of the forces used and their placement (the boys chorus and chamber organ are off stage) are designed to create a three dimensional musical experience not unlike Stockhausen's Gruppen.

At a time when our own country is fighting two wars, Britten's music is as relevant now as it was in 1962 when the world was rebuilding from the catastrophe of the war to end all wars.  

Shangrow has a knack for tackling difficult works.  In December, he drew out a fine performance of Monteverdi's forward looking 1610 Vespers.  Later this year, he takes on Mahler's Symphony No.4.  Shangrow's Britten was no different.  

For almost ninety minutes, Shangrow had the piece unfold naturally.  The Northwest Boy's Choir was angelic.  I sat in the balcony where I was close to the crisp singing of the choir.  This may have been a mistake, since I did not get to experience how the choir sounds as it was intended.  Shangrow's tempos were patient.  He let the music unfold naturally, allowing the secular and sacred to become one.  The performance was satisfying from start to finish, culminating in a mesmerizing Libra me.     

The orchestra generated an unexpectedly full and somber sound.  I shouldn't be surprised, Shangrow has nurtured his orchestra building it into one of the better community orchestras in Seattle.  At times the brass had balance problems, drowning out the chorus, soloists and the orchestra.  The effect was powerful albeit distorted.  

Even though this weekend's performances were dominated by music of the Twentieth Century, Seattle depends (heavily) on the talent of visiting conductors and orchestra's like Orchestra Seattle to expose audiences to fare different from Brahms and Beethoven.  Without George Shangrow's steady vision of musical possibility, works like the War Requiem would never be heard.   

When Michael Stern took the microphone to introduce Integrales he gushed over Seattle's openness to modern music.  Peering out in the Benaroya Hall audience he had to see that there were plenty of empty seats.  If he had eyes in the back of his head he would have seen what I saw, restless thumbing of program notes during the Varese.  With a little bit of forethought and audience conditioning modern music can work in Seattle. 

Modern music need not be relegated to fifteen minutes at the start of program.  Shangrow's Britten proved this. 


Richard said...

I'm so glad George did the Britten War Requiem--it's a brilliant and moving work, and never, given mankind's unfortunate ability to continue to wage war, out of style or need. But it hasn't been quite 30 years since it was done in Seattle. I conducted it with forces from Pacific Lutheran University (plus pros like Margorie Kransberg-Talvi and others doing the chamber orchestra that accompanies the tenor and baritone), and the Northwest Boychoir (under Joe Crnko then, too) in 1987.

We did two performances, one at PLU and one at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle (in the old configuration when they had a stage extension built to go over the front steps to the chancel, which gave enough room for the large orchestra and choir). The soprano soloist sang from the pulpit, and the tenor and baritone soloists sang from the lecturn, with the chamber orchestra in front of the lecturn on the floor. I conducted the big choir and orchestra, Jerry Kracht (PLU orchestra director at the time) conducted the chamber orchestra, and Joe led the boys from the gallery in the back.

I'd certainly put it as one of the great experiences in my conducting life.

Richard Sparks

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your informative article about the performance of Britten's War Requiem. As a musician who participated in the concert and who generally is active in the local community orchestra scene, this sort of commentary and coverage is extremely welcome. I hope you will continue on this tack and especially that you will cover two community groups that I consider truly exceptional: Rainier Symphony and Northwest Mahler Festival. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

As far as Varese and Britten are concerned, I can hardly think that Britten can be considered modern in the same sense as Varese. People may always be uncomfortable with Varese, and choral music of Britten would never be enough of a primer to introduce audiences to him, or Stockhausen for that matter.

Z. Carstensen said...

There is no doubt about it Varese is a tougher idiom for listeners to grasp. At the same time, I don't think listeners can actually get to the point of being able to appreciate Varese unless you have a pretty steady diet of Britten and others.

The Powells in Portland said...

I too would echo Dick Sparks' comments. As an undergraduate at the time at SPU, I attended the PLU performance at St. Mark's in 1987. With score in hand, it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Mark Powell