In 2002, Runnicles led the combined ensembles in an Atlanta performance of the Requiem, later taking the chorus’s interpretation on a triumphant trip to Berlin to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic. A series of 2014 ASO performances in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall in New York, led by music director Robert Spano, marked the most recent appearances of Britten’s masterwork on an ASO program.
The ASO and Runnicles wrung depth and subtext Thursday from Britten’s score, which can be both screamingly loud and achingly soft. Demonstrative, clangorous horns formed the backbone of spine-tingling triple-fortes. The choir and orchestra often elevated to sustained passages of end-is-nigh conflagration, but the ensemble consciously maintained control and musical beauty. From the introduction of the piece — where the orchestra unwraps an angular, sprawling melodic line, backed softly by tubular bells – the choral voices were light and hushed. In some passages, performed almost in a stage whisper, the choir became a glorious melodic hush of blended voices.
The verdant orchestral writing changes in the duets between Cooley and Braun. Played by the chamber ensemble, the music had a woodwind-heavy folkish twinge that in performances by other orchestras has sounded militant but playful. Thursday, the sprightliness was subdued, but the orchestration still proved a contrast to the vocal lines – visceral and bitter at times, sorrowful and languorous at others. Braun’s vocal expressiveness stood out among the trio of exceptional vocalists.
It’s impossible to hear Britten’s plaintive, foreboding requiem without the weight of the past, and unfortunately, recognition of the present. After all, on Monday, discussion of a neo-Cold War — a nuclear-fueled, 21st century arms race — dominated the media. The ASO’s rich history with the work, and the beauty with which they perform it, begs for serious, and complete, contemplation of our place in the world.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
8 p.m. Oct. 25. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Oct. 27. $17-$93. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.