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The Drama and the Majesty

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/18/2010 -  
Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Christine Goerke (Soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (Tenor), Matthias Goerne (Baritone)
SKF Matsumoto Choir, Ritsuyukai Choir, SKF Matsumoto Children’s Chorus, Pierre Vallet (Chorus Master), Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (Music Director and Conductor)

S. Ozawa (© Sony Classics)

The most resplendent visual memory I have of any conductor was Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus in the Berlioz Requiem. The venue was the Hong Kong Arts Centre, and, during the Tuba Mirum, Maestro Ozawa turned from the orchestra to the balcony above the audience. He extended his arms like Isaiah pleading with Jehovah, his face so beatific we could see aureoles around that white hair, and he summoned the brass choir and sopranos to sing.

Summoned?? I wrote that, had God witnessed Seiji Ozawa at that moment, he would have said, “Now that’s what I call a Commandment!!” (The editor excised the sentence.)

The Maestro did have his Carnegie Hall balcony, from whence the SKF Matsumoto Children’s Chorus sung their Latin with utmost precision. He had the kind of brass choir and First Chair Trumpet that would put BSO to shame. And while he never reached the heights of the Hong Kong performance visually, Maestro Ozawa turned Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem into a dramatic epic. Which is the only way to make this work live.

Drama is of course the secret. Britten couldn’t compose a self-contained Schubert tune. Instead his music in this hybrid work makes its intentions known through dramatic poetry, dialogue, and emotions from both the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owens, himself a victim of World War I.

When Britten, wrote about heavens and earth shaking in Libera me, the two choirs, SKF Matsumoto Choir, Ritsuyukai coalesced with an almost chaotic Penderecki-like closeness. In the Offertorium, the children’s choir sings of hell, but when the chorus chimed leading to the Holy Light, Benjamin Britten leaps to the task with a jazzy, joyous jumping (and most unlikely) fugue.

Watching Maestro Ozawa would have been a humbling experience for any other conductor. Not that he was necessarily better (see below), but that still, at the age of 75, he has not only the spirit but the spiritual hands-on approach.

Maestro Ozawa never preens, Bernstein style. But in the most emotional passages, he creates the illusion of standing 10 feet tall. And like he was as a youth, he never forgets the simplest instrument. I was astounded in the Sanctus to see him literally signaling every vibration from the bells.

The results were, yes, dramatic, though obviously Carnegie Hall presented problems. The piece was written specifically for Coventry Cathedral, and the architecture here had to be simulated. Thus, soprano Christine Goerke stood not with the two male singers, but far in the back with the chorus. Ms. Goerke’s voice, though, shone and soared above the orchestra and chorus.

From SKF Choir (© Herring Rollmop)

Then, too, the “boys chorus” was made up of girls and boys together, from the Matsumoto Children’s Chorus, formed especially in 2009 to sing this work (though they also do Bach). Instead of residing in the clerestory of the church, they were up in the gallery, helping assume a spatial layout.

Maestro Ozawa’s own Saito Kinen Orchestra did thee honors, and they were many. Their piano pianissimo at the end of the Kyrie eleison was breathtaking, as were their tempestuous playing in the Dies Irae and the jolly Offertorium.

Perhaps Benjamin Britten’s most profound music, the music which justified Owens’ line, “I sing of war” was in the finale. In the original, the two singers were English and German, though here both Anthony Dean Griffey and Matthias Goerne were profoundly moving without the contrast. Their dialogue, ending with “Let us sleep now” against the major chorus, with the children’s chorus singing “Into paradise” from the balcony, was not as ecclesiastical as a cathedral would have made it. But the artists, the music and above all, Seiji Ozawa gave it the majesty which only a rare leader can create.

Harry Rolnick



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