When Joseph Crnko, director of the Seattle Symphony Chorale and the Northwest Boychoir, says that Seattle’s choral-music devotees have “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” next week to hear “a truly professional production” of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, he’s being entirely literal.
The last time the orchestra took on Britten’s choral masterpiece was in 1964. Pacific Lutheran University staged it in 1987, with Crnko and the Northwest Boychoir taking part. Orchestra Seattle presented the work in 2008. But the city’s flagship orchestra hasn’t performed it in half a century, perhaps because it’s so complex and expensive to put together. It requires a main orchestra, a separate chamber orchestra, a boys choir, a huge adult chorus (there’ll be 160 singers from the Chorale and Seattle Pro Musica onstage), in addition to soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.
The 80-minute work, with its mix of requiem Mass and secular text (Wilfred Owen’s war poems), is extraordinary. Britten wrote it for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral — the 14th-century cathedral had been destroyed in World War II — and, aiming for a spirit of postwar reconciliation, he pointedly cast it with an English tenor (Peter Pears), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya, who was barred by the Russian authorities from singing at the Coventry, but appeared on the 1963 recording).
Widely praised at its premiere in 1962, the piece prompted one critic to write, “Every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.”
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth, so a revival of it is apt. The ball got rolling four or five years ago when Seattle Pro Musica director Karen P. Thomas was having lunch with some of her contacts at Chorus America, an organization that fosters professional, volunteer and youth choral activity throughout the U.S. She suggested that Seattle Pro Musica should co-host Chorus America’s 2013 national conference (as they’re doing, along with the Symphony and the Chorale) and that the requiem should be the main item on the conference’s performance agenda.
Back in Seattle, Thomas touched base with Crnko. For years, the two of them had had an “unwritten pact” that if either of them had a chance to perform War Requiem, the other would be invited to take part. When Ludovic Morlot came aboard as the Symphony’s new music director, the prospects for a performance happening suddenly looked good.
At his Queen Anne home last month, Crnko recalled his first consultations with Morlot about future repertoire: “He expressed very rapidly to me the desire to do ambitious works and larger 20th-century works. I instantly said, ‘War Requiem.’ His eyes flashed: ‘Yes, War Requiem.’ ”
Britten’s monumental piece strikes notes that range from the otherworldly to the bitterly satirical. Owen’s verse can be jaunty-macabre one moment (“Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death”) and powerfully condemnatory the next (as in his twist on the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham ignores God’s offer of a sacrificial ram and slays “his son — And half the seed of Europe, one by one”).
“One of the great things about Britten is his amazing command of the drama of music,” Crnko says. “This is music that is speaking of the horrors of war — very eloquently, very poetically, very concisely — against the broader landscape of the requiem Mass.”
Part of the drama comes from the way the boys’ choir is removed from the other performers, both physically (the boys will sing from the second-tier boxes) and in terms of tempo. Some passages almost become musical collages, with each sound floating in its own separate sphere.
Britten was a committed pacifist, and in an era when the U.S. has been continually ensnared in wars for more than a decade, War Requiem should have a special resonance.
“I think this piece is well timed,” Crnko says, “no matter when it is presented.”
Note: The requiem isn’t the only choral work by Britten being performed this week. Seattle Choral Company is featuring three pieces by him, including his rarely heard Cantata Misericordium, along with two works by Ola Gjeilo, at 8 p.m. Saturday, St. Mark’s Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle; $10-$25 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com