There may be no more appropriate time for Britten’s “War Requiem,” a 90-minute choral and symphonic rumination on the horrors of war.
Written using English texts from World War I poet Wilfred Owen juxtaposed with Latin passages from the mass for the dead, the piece has been performed around the country to mark the end of the first World War. Britten’s requiem is a moving plea for pacifism, premiered at the rededication of a cathedral bombed during World War II, that many need still today: art that confronts the horrors of war but is too beautiful to ignore.
Thursday at Symphony Hall, with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, the performance called for the full complement of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the ASO Chorus, the Gwinnett Young Singers and a trio of soloists: soprano Evelina Dobraceva, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Russell Braun.
The massive ASO Chorus stood on risers at the back of a stage crammed with instruments and musicians; a small chamber orchestra, which only accompanied the solos and duets between Cooley and Braun, sat on a platform eight inches below the stage facing the rest of the performers. Runnicles appeared on the conductor’s platform amid this sea of musicians. The Gwinnett Young Singers, singing a quasi call-and-response to the chorus, were situated at the very top of the rear balcony.
For the ASO, and especially the chorus, the “War Requiem” is a strand of musical DNA. Maybe it has to do with the enduring legacy of chorus founder and former ASO music director Robert Shaw’s association with the piece. But the association likely comes from that fact that the ASO Chorus has triumphed on the world stage while performing the piece.
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.