Classical Music

The DSO's Britten's War Requiem is Dark, Disturbing--and Hauntingly Beautiful

A beautiful symphony hall is like a sanctuary. It's a place where members of a community gather to share a common experience. With phones off and conversations muted, there is communion between people and art.

Last weekend at the Meyerson symphony hall felt like a celebration of Easter Sunday proportions. The room was fuller than usual and there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation as Maestro Jaap van Zweden jumped onto his podium and lifted his baton. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven's 5th symphony. A piece which, at it's most elemental level, is a celebration of the human spirit's ability to triumph over struggle. The crowd carried energy with them when they left the hall.

This weekend, the sounds of Britten's War Requiem evoke a very different mood in the Meyerson; sometimes people gather in a sanctuary to celebrate a wedding, and sometimes they meet to mourn the dead. This gigantic work, written to commemorate those lost in Europe's world wars, conjures the latter.

Britten's War Requiem was first performed 50 years ago in England, the composer's homeland. The occasion was the opening of Coventry Cathedral, a space rebuilt after total destruction during World War II bombings. It is a mash-up of old and new, combining the Latin liturgical texts of a Requiem mass (mass for the dead) and an English poem written by a WWI soldier killed just days before the end of the war.

The composer used every available sound source for this work. Two conductors are required to lead a full orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra sharing the main stage. The organist is joined in the loft by a large choir and, above them, a children's choir. Three soloists - soprano, tenor, and baritone - complete the massive ensemble.

The music of Britten's War Requiem is at times hauntingly beautiful and at times utterly disturbing. It lasts well over an hour with no intermission. Atonal harmonies and melodies create angular and obtuse sounds as opposed to accessible and catchy tunes. With texts that conjure apocalyptic judgment and bloody war, this is no Beethoven's 5th. War here is not idealized. Instead, Britten's pacifist message is pleaded with urgency.

It seems that, in general, the public is more accepting of uncomfortable or avant-garde elements in visual art, film, and theater than in concert-hall music. We are used to going to museums and checking out a piece of art that is strange or different. Maybe you don't want it in your living room, but you accept it without question, even appreciate it, in a museum.

Especially if you are new or unfamiliar to the world of classical music, this concert might be a challenge. But there are so many fascinating musical moments in the performance, it's worth the effort. You might not run home and download a recording, but you will gain from experiencing this piece live.

SMU's beloved Music Director, Paul Phillips and Maestro van Zweden are fascinating to watch side-by-side. Phillips conducts the chamber orchestra, whose sparse, bare sounds were some of the most impressive last night. The two men conduct in tandem almost seamlessly.

The Dallas Symphony Chorus, directed by Joshua Habermann, fills the Meyerson with the richest harmonies of the evening and Russian soprano Olga Guryakova, projects a luscious tone from the balcony. When tenor Ian Bostridge enunciated "Dona nobis pacem" (Grant Us Peace) with hushed orchestral backing and a perfectly executed diminuendo, the effect gave me chills.

So yes, this weekend's DSO program is funereal. The music is dark. But if a community only uses its sanctuaries for celebrations, it limits its scope of communion.

The DSO will perform Britten's War Requiem two more times this weekend (tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 8). The DSO has a great 5-minute video featuring choral director Joshua Habermann's thoughts on the Requiem posted on it's website. Check it out here (scroll down) for more information.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack