Canadians Twice Remember Fallen With ‘War Requiem’

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Britten's War Requiem under music director Bramwell Tovey.  (Photo couretsy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra)
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Britten’s War Requiem under music director Bramwell Tovey.
(Photo couretsy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER & VICTORIA, British Columbia — This year marks the centenary of the start of World War I. A good deal of modern Canada’s national identity was forged during that horrific conflict, and commemorative events intensified in the lead-up to our national day of mourning, Remembrance Day, on Nov. 11. Two British Columbia cities with significant colonial connections to what used to be called “the Old Country,” Vancouver and Victoria, saw performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem by their respective orchestras on the pre-Remembrance Day weekend.

Tania Miller led the Victoria performance. (Rob Destrube)
Tania Miller led the Victoria Symphony performance. (Rob Destrube)

Vancouver’s connection to the Britten masterwork goes back a long way. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director of the day, Meredith Davies, introduced the work to local audiences in 1967, just five years after he conducted its world premiere in England’s new Coventry Cathedral. It’s been done regularly here ever since.

In contrast, this was Victoria’s first War Requiem, a project obviously dear to the heart of the Victoria Symphony’s ambitious music director, Tania Miller, now in her final seasons with the orchestra. Presumably the two performances on Nov. 8 and 9 were something of a now-or-never proposition. Mounting this great, expansive work necessitated a number of artistic compromises to make it fit the available instrumental and vocal resources, let alone the tight spaces of downtown Victoria’s bijoux Royal Theatre.

Three choirs — the Victoria Choral Society, a community-based ensemble that’s been singing for some eight decades; the smaller, recently formed Vox Humana Chamber Choir; and a children’s choir from St. Michael’s University School — were joined by a trio of soloists. The 60-player orchestra was only slightly augmented, but even so, the Royal stage was too small to include the kids (who sang from the back of the gallery) or to allow for a separated chamber orchestra, a strategy Britten employed to accompany his soloists and to symbolically divide sacred and secular texts. Here the “chamber” players stayed put in their usual places within the orchestra, resulting in some significant balance and ensemble issues.

Benjamin Butterfield, a respected tenor who teaches at the University of Victoria, was joined by baritone Phillip Addis and soprano Joni Henson. Addis has a nice sound and good musical instinct, though her voice occasionally shows a raw edge. Butterfield is well schooled but a bit too suave and detached from the words for those of us who think of Britten as an English Expressionist. Henson, fresh from singing Fricka in Pacific Opera Victoria’s fall production of Das Rheingold, had the requisite power and presence to make a good showing in the Requiem’s not always flattering soprano part.

Coventry Cathedral, where Britten's piece had its premiere.
Coventry Cathedral, where Britten’s War Requiem had its premiere.

Miller’s choral and orchestral forces gave the work their all, and she showed presence and energy in melding them into a cohesive whole. Although some of the bombastic passages lacked the necessary intensity, the somber poetry of the opening “Requiem aeternam” and the wonderful tapestry of sound that concludes the “Libera me” proved as meaningful and moving for the audience as they did for the participants, well aware that they were making local history in a community endeavor of shining worth.

The Vancouver performances on Nov. 8 and 10 were on an entirely different scale. Here, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey was able to lavish resources on a performance second to none in terms of sheer size. As in Victoria, a mixed-gender youth choir (in this case from the West Point Grey Academy) stood in for the boys choir that Britten specified, singing from behind the dress circle of the 2,800-seat downtown Orpheum Theatre.

For his large choir, Tovey took a calculated risk. In past Requiems, he has used only the Vancouver Bach Choir, which like the Victoria Choral Society is an ensemble rooted in the old-school tradition of big municipal choirs. On this occasion, Tovey chose a complement of singers from the University of British Columbia, a cohort reflecting contemporary Vancouver’s Pacific Rim multiculturalism. It proved to be a remarkably fine idea. Although there were fleeting moments of insecurity, the freshness and commitment of the young choristers was a moving testament to the ongoing power and universality of the score.

Ridden hard the previous week by rising star conductor Diego Matheuz, the VSO players were not at their finest in the opening sections of the work — inconsistent brass, wonky wind balance, and not enough edge in the percussion. But as the piece progressed, Tovey’s riveting sense of the Requiem as a whole, rather than a collection of patchy episodes, took charge, and the reading steadily accrued strength and authority. By the “Sanctus,” the glories of Britten’s sound and the sheer barbaric grandeur of all those musicians made this a Requiem to remember.

Vancouver: Soprano Christie, conductor Tovey, tenor Phan.
Vancouver Symphony: Soprano Christie, conductor Tovey, tenor Phan.

Tovey’s soloists — soprano Sheila Christie, baritone Russell Braun, and tenor Nicholas Phan — were crucial contributors. Even as early as Peter Grimes, Britten was known to tailor his music to his particular singers. The late Russian diva Galina Vishnevskaya’s inimitable sound informs the soprano writing, and the young Christie worked the part’s fierceness, defiance, and almost hysterical intensity. Braun brought dignity, pathos, and a richly secure sound to a role first sung by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Last summer at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, I heard Phan perform Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, and I recognized a singer to watch out for, especially in his seemingly innate sympathy for English repertoire. While Phan never shrank from the ironies and bitterness of poet Wilfrid Owen’s texts, his work with Braun at the end of the “Libera me” delivered Britten’s message of reconciliation and forgiveness with transcendent poignancy.

Miller presented the Requiem on its own; Tovey chose to open with a rather unusual companion piece, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This was a stroke of programming magic. The Fantasia can be an exuberant exploration of brilliant string scoring; here it was given a pensive — even elegiac — reading. In this context, instead of Edwardian-era beauty rife with nostalgia, it was impossible not to hear it as a ghostly memento from the world that perished in the trenches.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.