Don't Cry For Me Britannia
Bejamin Britten: War Requiem
The Collegiate Chorale
Robert Bass, Conductor
The Riverside Choral Society
Patrick Gardner, Director
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Dianne Berkun, Director
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Christine Goerke, Soprano
Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor
Håkan Hagegård, Baritone
Michelangelo Antonioni is a filmmaker for whom I have the deepest respect although I do agree with many of his detractors that his films are difficult to love. For me, he has demonstrated a manner of thinking about art that I have found useful and that I have labeled the “Antonioni problem”. Simply put, when attempting to create an opus designed to communicate the essential tedium of life, how does an artist prevent being boring himself?
One could offer tendentious arguments from many points of view as to the relative merits and symbolism of presenting a performance of Ben Britten’s War Requiem on a Veteran’s Day in wartime America. Suffice it to say that Britten was also a veteran, except that the cause for which he fought so fiercely was pacifism. Before this concert by the Collegiate Chorale, it was of Britten that I thought, but, quickly into it, my focus drifted to my old pal Antonioni.
This particular manifestation of the problem had to do with solemnity. In mounting a work of great import and ultimate sadness, at what point have you crossed the line into sermonizing? This reading was so spare, so joyless, so serious, so depressed as to lose its audience relatively early on. Of course, Britten is writing from the depths of despair, but I have heard several versions of the piece live and none have been so utterly dead.
Part of the problem was platform positioning. The work depends quite heavily on the contrast between the chorus and orchestra, with their fearsome Latin text and relatively tonal harmonies, and a small chamber group with the two male soloists intoning not only in the English of Wilfred Owen but in a hyperextended modern harmonic language of harsh dissonance and eerie irresolution. However, conductor Robert Bass chose not to separate the chamber musicians physically from their mates, as they were initially placed in Coventry Cathedral. Rather they were simply the first chair players doubling their parts as needed. Perhaps that insured a higher level of instrumental excellence, but the essential distinction was totally subsumed.
This was especially odd as this same performance featured a masterstroke of positioning as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus was somewhere overhead and unseen, pronouncing their sparse Latin in an otherwordly manner that made me think of the new language that Berlioz created for his demons in The Damnation of Faust. This effect was thrilling and even a bit scary, what with thanatology being the focal point of the essay as a whole. But just like some of those wonderful Antonioni moments, like the robot walking into the walls in Red Desert or Gabriele Ferzetti talking about her shadow in L’Avventura, this was but a diversion. Ironically, for a presentation about life and death, this performance was essentially lifeless.
Balance was also a bit of a concern, as the combined Collegiate and Riverside Choruses simply blew away the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in many spots. Now this is indeed the chorale’s concert: the band is simply a hired one, but there was a disproportionate emphasis on ensemble singing (some would say hurrah, considering how often in modern concert life just the reverse is true). Further, the normally reliable St. Luke’s people were sloppy in many entrances and the brass often fell short.
As to the soloists, Anthony Dean Griffey impressed with his vocalism, especially his clear English diction, but seemed uninvolved emotionally. Hakan Hagegard was more animated and performed yeomanlike service in some of the more thorny passages (this is really difficult music to sing). Christine Goerke was a full-voiced low soprano, but had more pleasant passages than the men (she is allied, and physically was stationed, with the chorus), so may have sounded a bit better simply because of the contrast in musical vocabulary.
All in all a noble effort but one that could have been much more moving. As Wilfred Owen said, it was a strange meeting.
Frederick L. Kirshnit