May 2, 2018

Princeton University Orchestra Ends Season With Britten’s “War Requiem”

By Nancy Plum

In a true “town and gown” collaboration, the Princeton University Orchestra presented one of its most substantial Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts ever this past weekend at Richardson Auditorium. Joined by the University Glee Club, Princeton Pro Musica, Princeton High School Women’s Choir, and three international vocal soloists, the orchestra put the crowning stroke on conductor Michael Pratt’s 40th anniversary season leading the ensemble. In performances Friday and Saturday night, more than 300 musicians took the stage for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, requiring an extension to the stage at Richardson. Friday night’s opening performance showed this piece to be a work just as timely now as at its premiere in 1962, and proved to be music that musically pulls two world conflicts into contemporary times. In another achievement for the University Orchestra, the concert was broadcast live on local radio, and was to be rebroadcasted at a later date.

The Requiem Mass for the Dead has been set by composers since medieval times, ranging from unison chant to towering and operatic settings by 19th-century composers. When Britten was commissioned to write a major work for chorus and orchestra for the dedication of the newly-constructed Coventry Cathedral in England (which stands next to the architectural remains of the structure bombed in World War II), he looked to the mass text to create a piece mourning England’s fallen soldiers of two wars. In Britten’s setting, the traditional Latin text is intermingled with poetry composed during World War I by English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action a week before the armistice in 1918.

Britten’s scoring divided the orchestra into a principal ensemble and chamber orchestra, and conductor Pratt placed the chamber group (including a second timpani) to the side of the stage. Beginning with very subtle bells from the percussion section and scattered “Requiem” declamations from the combined Glee Cub and Pro Musica, Pratt led the orchestra through mounting intensity in the opening section. Combining Pro Musica (prepared by Ryan James Brandau) with the Glee Club (prepared by Gabriel Crouch) added a solid foundation to the sound, especially in the men’s sections, and throughout the evening, the chorus had no trouble projecting over the colossal orchestral ensemble. The High School Women’s Choir, conducted by Vincent Metallo, was placed in an alcove in the balcony, and the choir’s clear and light sound conveyed prayers of heavenly praise with shades of innocence unfettered by the grief of the soloists and adult choruses.

Britten divided the text between chorus and solo singers, giving most of Wilfred Owen’s poetry to tenor and baritone soloists — William Burden and Andrew Garland, respectively. Burden, with vast operatic experience, dramatically brought Owen’s poetry to life, often joined by Garland portraying a second soldier. Garland also presented the text mournfully, and when the two singers came together in a closing dialog among a narrator and two corpses, the poignancy of Owen’s words and the soloists’ plaintive singing showed War Requiem to be a true memorial to England’s lost. Burden and Garland were most often accompanied by the chamber orchestra, with especially elegant solos from clarinetist Yang Song, oboist Ethan Petno, and harpists Julia Ilhardt and Sarah Rapoport. Soprano Sarah Pelletier’s role was often to lead the choruses in the Latin text, well interpreting the fear and wrath of an impending day of judgment. Pelletier effectively captured a community’s collective sense of grief as she was joined by children and adult choruses in a closing plea for consolation and eternal rest.

Britten’s setting of the Latin “Requiem” text followed the tradition of 18th and 19th-century composers before him, with a particular influence from Giuseppe Verdi’s powerfully operatic setting. However, prayers which previous composers had scored to lyrical and graceful melodies were set by Britten as dramatically intense, often with pulsating timpani and forceful horns. Britten intended this work to be performed by massive forces, and the four combined ensembles in Richardson Auditorium did not disappoint. From the podium, conductor Pratt kept the varied musical palettes intact, emphasizing brass writing that could rival Mahler, and allowing the Glee Club and Pro Musica to sing seated at times to accentuate subtlety. Certain a cappella passages were sung with an even sound and little vocal color, creating starkness. Pratt was able to bring the orchestral and choral sound to full volume as the day of wrath threatened to consume the world in ashes, yet wisely reduced conducting gestures during poetic sections to allow the soloists and accompanying instruments to find their own pace in the music.

Britten’s War Requiem stands as a monument to the scars of war and how hope can rise from the ashes. Although the composer spent part of World War II in the United States as a conscientious objector, he felt compelled to return to England in 1942, and this work also serves as an homage to his homeland in one of the country’s darkest periods. Loss permeates the piece — a concept not lost on Pratt and Crouch as they bid farewell to almost 25 percent of their ensembles’ membership who are graduating this year. The Stuart B. Mindlin performances this past weekend surely gave these graduating seniors food for thought as they embark on their post-graduate journeys into the world.