By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – The names Benjamin Britten and John F. Kennedy probably will be tied together forever, for Britten’s 50th birthday on Nov. 22, 1963, also happened to be the date of Kennedy’s assassination. Yes, it’s coincidence, but maybe not in one sense. Britten hated war and violence all his life, and his pacifistic War Requiem gained immediate traction and popularity in 1963, the year Kennedy started to move in the direction of nuclear disarmament after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the edge of disaster.
So 50 years later, President Kennedy couldn’t help but be on the minds of many who were observing Britten’s 100th birthday, even James Conlon, who made the War Requiem the apex of Los Angeles’ ongoing Britten celebration on Nov. 25. It was an electric, driven performance, and in the spirit of passing the torch to a new generation, Conlon did it all with young people, a flood of them.
A reported 400-or-so performers crowded the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage and spilled over into the “orchestra view” seats in the back – members of the USC Thornton Symphony and Colburn Orchestra, choirs from USC, CSU Long Beach, CSU Fullerton, Chapman University, even New Zealand. The excellent Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was perched way up in the balcony to the audience’s rear, singing as clear as a bell. At no time in the entire performance could one tell that this was not a professional ensemble.
Conlon has been championing the War Requiem since 1979, when he chose it for his first concert as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival. He conducted it at Disney Hall with urgent tempos, sharp accents, and maximum dynamic contrasts, keeping the massive choruses together by enforcing crisp articulation, guiding the tricky transitions between the big orchestra and chamber orchestra seamlessly. The strings slashed away at the “Dies irae” ; the “Lacrimosa” was relaxed but still underscored with tension; the “Libera me” built quickly to its huge climaxes. There is much anger and outrage in this piece that the composer conveyed when he conducted it, yet often these qualities have been lost or smoothed over in the ensuing decades. But Conlon brought them back to the fore, and the kids executed everything with the excitement of discovery.
Tenor Joseph Kaiser, while following the general template laid down by Peter Pears a half-century ago, was often more impassioned than Pears ever dared to be, even conveying contempt in Wilfred Owen’s great line about the “scribes” who “bawl allegiance to the state.” Baritone Phillip Addis offered his most moving singing in the final Owen poem, “Strange Meeting.” Soprano Tamara Wilson delivered the “Dies irae” with stentorian fervor, yet her “Libera me” was chilling in that she was barely audible, as if deliberately frightened beyond speech.
For the closing “In paradisum” section (“Let us sleep now”), Britten wrote some of his most beautiful music. Everyone in this gigantic performing apparatus should drift hazily into the ether in a wave of reconciliation tinged with unease. For this, one would have wanted a more reverberant, less-detailed acoustic than Disney Hall can provide, yet the spatial effect was there, and enough emotional power came through.
Some in the audience were delayed by snarled traffic because President Obama was in town fund-raising. He should have been at Disney Hall instead, for though we’ve stepped far back from the brink since 1963, the War Requiem’s message is still sadly pertinent.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.