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Pro Musica, Westfield Symphony, Children’s Choir Combine Effectively in Britten’s “War Requiem”

Nancy Plum

It is always hard on a spring day to come inside and hear a concert, but those who gave up gardening on Sunday afternoon to hear Princeton Pro Musica’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem heard one of the ensemble’s best recent offerings. The concert at Trenton’s War Memorial was a collaboration among Pro Musica, north Jersey’s Westfield Symphony and a treble chorus compiled by local children’s choir guru Sue Ellen Page. The ensembles also performed the same program in Westfield the night before, led by Westfield Symphony conductor, David Wroe.

There were certainly plenty of events in early 20th century Britain to inspire musical composition. War Requiem was commissioned in 1962 for the reconsecration of England’s Coventry Cathedral after the destruction of the original Cathedral in World War II. Britten set the “Requiem” portion of the work from the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, and the “War” portion consisted of nine poems by Wilfred Owens, written during World War I. The poems were musically set for tenor and baritone soloists, sung on Sunday afternoon by Scott Murphree and Peter Castaldi, respectively.

Mr. Murphree sang with a great deal of vocal point and edge to his sound, a style required by much of Britten’s music. He especially demonstrated his ability to sing with a light and well-focused tone on the words “Dona nobis pacem.” Mr. Castaldi provided credible sung commentary, with dramatic text when necessary. The two singers showed Britten’s operatic side in the work’s duets, singing a particularly effective unison and then splitting off into somewhat atonal intervals in relaying a story of Abram interpolated into the text.

Soprano Margaret Cusack provided an auxiliary vocal role to the chorus, emphasizing the text or adding an extra musical dimension. Ms. Cusack’s first solo was fierce in vocal tone, as she conveyed the “Rex tremendae” text. On the Day of Judgment, she was definitely not to be reckoned with. Ms. Cusack showed a more forgiving side in the later “Lacrimosa die illa” text, providing a good contrast to the chorus representing mere mortals.

The members of Pro Musica were singing from the far back of the stage, and it was understandably hard to get a huge choral sound at times in the large space of the War Memorial. Throughout the concert, choral diction spoke well in the house, and the chorus was always well blended. The men’s sections were precise in the “Dies irae,” and the women were equally as clean, with a little more bite to their sound. The floating soprano sound on the “Recordare” section was impressive, as Ms. Slade built a nice gradual crescendo over this movement.

The treble chorus, singing from the balcony, was equally as clean, including the lower trebles, and their diction could always be understood, even from the seats under the overhang from which they were singing. As might be expected of a composer from a country with a long boychoir tradition, Britten set the “In Paradisum” text for treble chorus, which these children sang cleanly.

The Westfield Symphony proved to be an ensemble which has obviously played together for a long time. In this piece about war, there was more than the usual share of brass players, and the sound easily flowed among all these instruments. The orchestra was always well balanced, and the ensemble work among the players was impressive. In sporadic solos, concertmaster Anton Miller played decisively, and the winds maintained precision throughout the performance.

War Requiem combined a number of Britten’s compositional genres; some sections between tenor and baritone were right out of Peter Grimes, and the music for treble voices contained the rhythmic starkness of such works as Rejoice in the Lamb. This performance was the result of teamwork among performers who had wanted to do this piece for quite some time but never would have been able to achieve it on their own. Singularly, all of these ensembles could hold their own, but collectively, they created a monumental close to Pro Musica’s season.

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