La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 15 November 2012

DSO, van Zweden & Co. Present Britten's Prayer for Pacifism

by Paul E. Robinson

Olga Guryakova, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Dietrich Henschel, baritone
Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas
Dallas Symphony Chorus
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Jaap Van Zweden, conductor
Paul Phillips, conductor (chamber orchestra)
Myerson Symphony Centre
Dallas, Texas
November 9, 2012

By the late 1930s Germany, out to build its empire, had taken over Austria and Czechoslovakia. By September 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, it had become clear to the rest of the world that Germany would not be satisfied until it had conquered the whole of Europe and the Soviet Union, just as Japan was on a track to crush China and the whole of Asia. There is not much argument today about the need at the time to fight against Germany and Japan in what became known as World War II (1941-1945). Though the consensus is that the war was necessary, for British composer Benjamin Britten - as is clear from his magnificent “War Requiem” - no war can be “just.”

Great Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, dating back to the Middle Ages, was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe early in WW2  (1940). In 1962, a new cathedral, built right next to the ruins of the old one, opened its doors; for the occasion, Benjamin Britten was invited to write a major choral work, which he called the War Requiem.

Although seventeen years after the end of the war, there were still some who couldn’t forgive Britten for siding with the likes of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement with regard to Germany’s expansionism, the composer went a long way toward silencing his critics with the War Requiem. In its inspired blending of Catholic liturgical text and the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, the War Requiem is a profoundly moving evocation of the horrors of war and the ultimate need for reconciliation between the parties to the conflict.

Conductor Jaap Van Zweden has been a fierce advocate of the War Requiem and made a recording* of the work last year in Holland. Last week in Dallas he presented this towering work in three performances. I heard the second one and it was magnificent. Van Zweden had chosen wonderful soloists. Tenor Ian Bostridge (photo: right) has sung the role all over the world and his expressive lyric voice very much recalls that of the man for whom the part was written, the late Peter Pears, Britten’s long-time partner and collaborator. Like Pears, Bostridge has an uncanny sense of how to fit words to music and vice versa. The style of singing is idiosyncratic, as is the music.

The German baritone Dietrich Henschel has had a major career as a lieder singer. His sensitivity to the meaning of the text and his ability to shape a phrase were ideal for the War Requiem.

About soprano Olga Guryakova’s (photo: right)  performance, there will probably be little agreement. Russian-sounding voices tend to do that to North American listeners. In my opinion, her vibrato was a little wide but her voice was strong and at its best, rich and commanding. It should be noted that the male soloists were placed next to the conductor at the front of the stage while Guryakova was in the choir loft.

The two choirs were superb in this difficult music and the orchestra played at the level we have come to expect when Jaap Van Zweden is on the podium. He had some capable assistance on this occasion from Paul Phillips, music director of the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at SMU, conducting the chamber orchestra. And last but not least, the Myerson enhanced both the intimacy and the grandeur of the War Requiem. Britten said that he preferred to hear the piece in a resonant, cathedral-like space and I suspect he would have approved of the Myerson.

It is sometimes assumed that since he wrote so much “sacred” music Britten must have been a devout Christian. That was not the case. He grew up in a milieu in which church music was a part of the aural landscape, as it were, and in which churches provided great opportunities for young composers, and he was attracted to certain Bible stories for their insight into the human condition. Although he very much admired the figure of Jesus, he did not believe in his divinity. With respect to the War Requiem, this means that Britten’s inclusion of a Latin liturgical text along with the poetry of Wilfred Owen needs to be understood in a special way.

The heart of the War Requiem is Wilfred Owens (photo: right) anti-war poetry, which paints a picture of misery and death, and castigates the institutions and leaders who sent millions to their death on the battlefields of Europe. In one of his poems, Owen retells the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last minute, Abraham substitutes a ram and spares his son. That is the Biblical version of the story; Owen sees it differently: “Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not do so, but slew his Son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

In the poet’s view the old men – politicians and religious leaders – are the ones who make these terrible decisions on the basis of geopolitical calculations and nebulous convictions about the will of God. Where was Owen coming from? He fought in World War I and was killed in battle seven days before the end of the war at the age of 25.

At such moments in the War Requiem, when Owen’s poetry cuts to the heart of the matter, the chorus often joins the male soloists as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action, seemingly providing religious comfort in the form of Latin words from the Catholic mass for the dead. But such words are hollow; in promising that all will be well in life after death, they have been used too often to justify injustice and slaughter, and writers like Anthony Milner, quoted by Laurie Shulman in her notes for the Dallas performances of the War Requiem, have it backwards when they describe the War Requiem as “a setting of liturgical texts with poetical commentary.” The spiritual and philosophical core of the work is Owen’s poetry; the liturgical text provides the commentary and it is by no means reassuring in the face of the horrors and deception described by the poet.

This interpretation of the War Requiem has been expressed by Arthur C. Colman (Music and the Psychology of Pacifism: Benjamin Britten War Requiem): “The hope for eternal life that religion offers both ritually and emotionally through rebirth and renewal, the promise of God, that venerable covenant upon which Judeo-Christian civilization is based, is relegated to the darkest abattoirs of human history.”

It has often been noted that Britten’s music for the War Requiem is dominated by one of the most dissonant intervals in tonal music: the tritone. In early music, this interval was banned and given the name diabolus in musica or “the devil in music.”

The use of this interval is surely not just a technical choice on Britten’s part, but rather part of the very meaning of the work. It is another way in which Britten chooses to question orthodoxy and the means by which authority crushes and controls individuals. This is a theme that Britten returned to again and again in works like Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice, and most obviously in a discussion of the War Requiem, his anti-war opera Owen Wingrave.

There is reconciliation in the War Requiem, but it is between the parties to the conflict; the men who did their best to kill each other are at least reconciled in death. Organized religion does what it always does: assures each of the warring parties that they have God on their side; blesses the doomed young men as they head off to war; promises them eternal life when they come back in coffins.

The War Requiem needs to be played regularly in every country in the world to remind us that war is not ultimately about winners and losers, heroes and victims, but about man’s inhumanity to man.

*Britten: War Requiem. Evelina Dobracheva, sop., Anthony Dean Griffey, ten., Mark Stone, bar., Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Jaap Van Zweden (available on the Challenge label, or as a download from

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”


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Sunday, 11 November 2012

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 12 - 18)

Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gives Masterclasses and Recital at University of Toronto (Photo: Andreas Klingberg)

For opera lovers, top on the list this week is the appearance of soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in her adopted home city of Toronto.  She is giving two masterclasses for voice students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music Opera Division. On Nov. 14th 7 to 10 pm, the class is devoted to Lieder and Art Song, and on Nov. 15 12 to 3 pm the session is on Opera. The location is Walter Hall in the basement of the Edward Johnson Building at U of T. Then on Friday Nov. 16 7:30 pm, there will be a concert, An Evening of Song, featuring performances by voice students with Adrianne as the special guest.  All these events are free, and absolutely not to be missed!  For more information, go to  To me and to many opera lovers, Pieczonka is the reigning Canadian prima donna of our time - pace great divas the likes of Sondra Radvanovsky and Karina Gauvin. Having already had a 25 year career, Pieczonka is still at the top of her game and receiving glowing reviews, most recently for her Senta in Paris, Bayreuth and now Torino. Her December Christmas concert appearance in Hamilton with her partner mezzo Laura Tucker and the Hamilton Philharmonic is also well worth taking the trek along the QEW.  Further on the horizon is her first Madame Lidoine in Les dialogues des Carmelites for the COC in May. These are great opportunities to catch this internationally renowned singer at home.   Incidentally, last month Adrianne Pieczonka received an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from her Alma Mater, University of Western Ontario, for her contribution to the world of opera and classical music. Here is a video clip of the Convocation ceremony and her address to the graduating class.

Canadian pianist Andre Laplante is soloist in Beethoven Triple Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is offering Beethoven's Triple Concerto paired with Shostakovich's Symphony no. 12. The Shostakovich symphony, composed in 1961 - one year after the composer became a member of the Communist Party - was dedicated to the memory of Lenin. Its pro-Soviet theme was well received at home but less so in the West. Critics felt at the time it was among the composer's least successful work, but in recent years, the critical appraisal of this work has much improved.  In the Beethoven, violinist Jonathan Crow, pianist Andre Laplante and cellist Shauna Rolston are the soloists.  TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian, who has become quite the champion of Shostakovich, is at the helm. Two performances on Nov. 14 and 15  8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Following these concerts, the TSO takes this program on tour to Brockville (Nov. 17), Montreal (Nov. 18) and Ottawa (Nov. 19).
Noel Edison leads the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Carmina Burana at Koerner Hall

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under music director Noel Edison is presenting Orff's Carmina Burana in a single performance on Nov. 14  7:30 pm at Koerner Hall. Also on the program are two short works by Jonathan Dove and Eric Whiteacre. The soloists in the Orff are soprano Leslie Bouza, tenor Christopher Mayell and baritone Michael Nyby. I'll date myself with this comment, but throughout the 60's and 70's, this work was the poster-child of the counterculture, and rarely a month went by without it being performed somewhere, venue big or small.  Then it went into eclipse in terms of frequency of performance, but in recent years it has become popular once again. It's very accessible music, with a fascinating backstory to its genesis that makes this piece so appealing.

Young Canadian pianist Anastasia Rizikov plays Chopin Piano Concerto no. 2 with Sinfonia Toronto

The piano world is full of wunderkinder, and this week you'll get to hear one of them play - 13 year old Anastasia Rizikov is the soloist with Sinfonia Toronto at the Glenn Gould Studio. On Friday Nov. 16 8 pm, Rizikov plays the Chopin Piano Concerto no. 2, with conductor Berislav Skenderovic leading the chamber orchestra. Also on the program is Tchaikovsky's Serenade.  At such a young age, Rizikov is already concertizing widely and has won a number of international competitions, the most recent was the First Prize in the Rotary International Piano Competition in Mallorca, Spain in May 2011. This pianist is destined for a fine career in the future.
Canadian tenor Lawrence Wiliford sings Purcell with the Toronto Masque Theatre

Baroque fans rejoice - the Toronto Masque Theatre is presenting Fairest Isle: A Purcell Celebration on Friday Nov. 16 and Saturday Nov. 17  8 pm at the Al Green Theatre (Spadina and Bloor area). There is a pre-curtain chat at 7:15 pm on both evenings. Toronto Masque Theatre has previously presented five of Purcell's major works - Fairy Queen, Dido and Aeneas, Dioclesian,  Indian Queen and King Arthur.  According to the Company's website, this new show contains excerpts from Purcell's stage works with which is weaved the story of the composer's life and career, together with highlights of his church and court music.  It stars one of Canada's best young tenors, Lawrence Wiliford. Others in the show include sopranos Dawn Bailey and Michele DeBoer, countertenor Scott Belluz, tenor Charles Davidson and baritone Geoffrey Sirett. Derek Boyes directs and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere is the choreographer and dancer.

Off Centre Music Salon is known for its "music salon" series, a format that recalls the soiree musicales of a bygone era. This time, Off Centre is presenting American Salon: Syncopated City - the Magic of New York, featuring the music of Sondheim, Gershwin and Bernstein. Soloists include tenor John Easterlin (last in town as an excellent Tanzmeister in the COC Ariadne auf Naxos), sopranos Sarah Halmarson and Ilana Zarankin, and baritone Vasil Garvanliev. COC concertmaster Marie Berard is the violinist, plus pianists Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis. Sunday 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio.

Last but not least, the ambitious Opera By Request is presenting not one but two operas this week - Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (Friday Nov. 16) and Bizet's Pearl Fishers (Sat. Nov. 17).  The Tchaikovsky takes place at the Crescent School at Bayview and Lawrence, while Pearl Fishers is at OBR's usual venue of College Street United Church.  Both performances start at 7:30 pm and are with piano accompaniment.

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