The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was filled to near capacity on Saturday evening (November 2) not only where the audience sits but also on the stage as well. The occasion was the first of two performances by the Oregon Symphony of Benjamin Britten’s mammoth “War Requiem,” which requires large orchestral forces, huge choral ensembles, and soloists. The result of the instrumental and vocal artistry, guided by the orchestra’s music director Carlos Kalmar, was superb. I even enjoyed this live performance more than the famous recording of the “War Requiem” that was done with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the London Symphony Orchestra under the composer himself. That’s because the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Symphonic Choir, the Pacific University Chamber choir, the Pacific Youth Choir, soprano Marina Shaguch, tenor Thomas Cooley, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams expressed the complete emotional range of the music in such way that it made a personal connection. It was flat-out a stunningly, magnificent concert.
Britten wrote the “War Requiem” in 1961 after being commissioned to celebrate the reopening of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The cathedral had been bombed in a German air raid in 1940. Britten, a lifelong pacifist, dedicated the work to four friends, three of whom had died in WWII. He used texts from the Latin Mass for the Dead and nine poems of Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who died at the end of WWI.
Before the concert began, I was not in a particularly good mood. I even arrived at the concert with some trepidation because I thought that the “War Requiem” might box me on the ears and leave me nonplussed. Earlier in the week I had listened to the recording that Britten had made with Vishnevskaya, Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, and the London Symphony Orchestra, but it didn’t connect with me. I had sung the work in 1997 with the Oregon Symphony as a member of the Portland Symphonic Choir in concerts that were led by the orchestra’s former music director James DePriest. We didn’t have the built-out stage area back then and everyone was packed like sardines on the stage of the Schnitz except the children’s choir. They sang from the dress circle area of the balcony and created coordination problems. This time around, the Pacific Youth Choir was placed just offstage and the coordination between Kalmar and choir was spot on.
The orchestra was divided into two groups, with the principal players forming a small ensemble to Kalmar’s right and the rest of the orchestra led by the assistant principals. The two groups took advantage of the stage extension that was built out into the audience, taking away a few of the first rows. The Portland Symphonic Choir, the Pacific University Chamber Choir, and soprano Marina Shaguch sang from behind the orchestra in a section that extended over part of the regular stage area. The choruses sang text from the Latin Mass, accompanied by the large orchestra. Tenor Thomas Cooley and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams sang the poetry of Wilfred Owens, supported by the smaller ensemble of instrumentalists.
From the very first note of this concert, I felt that I was hearing something ultra-special. The opening sound was heavy and ponderous, but at the same time it felt like a fog was lifting. The adult chorus began singing “Requiem aeternam dona eis” and later the children’s chorus followed with “Te decet hymnus.” There was a softness and a sadness that would reenter at times later in the work. Both choirs sang with terrific diction and a wonderful balance of tone. Kalmar used hands to signal exactly when to taper a phrase or close off a word at the end of a phrase, and it was magical. The choirs also had plenty of power when they sang at full volume during the “Dies Irae” and the “Libera Me” and they performed the “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue with relish.
Shaguch had an amazing amount of volume and tempered it with warmth, coolness, and other emotions as was needed to convey the text. She had a brief moment in which she seemed to experience a slight power outage, but she recovered quickly and was a beacon of vocal light throughout the performance.
Cooley and Foster-Williams represented the two soldiers who reflect on their experiences in wartime. Some of their words were chilling, as when they, in a duet, described their closed encounters with Death, as in “We whistled when he shaved us with his scythe.” Cooley very effectively used a straight tone (no vibrato) when he sang some of the most poignant words. Foster-Williams, displaying a voice that could be demonstrative one moment and reflective the next, always had the center of the tone.
The orchestras (large and small) played with great depth of understanding. The brass section excelled in the fiery and warlike sections, but they deftly used mutes during the quieter passages. The double snare drums, timpani, and bass drum during the “Dies illa, dies irae” was molto tremendous. The strings and woodwinds played impeccably. Kalmar gave the performance direction and shape that made it a superb experience – one that caused an immediate and heartfelt standing ovation.