BSO triumphs with Benjamin Britten’s emotional War Requiem

Listen to this article

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo,
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libre me, Domine, de morte aeterna.

(I am seized with fear and trembling,
until the trial shall be at hand and the wrath to come.
Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death.)

Music critics have long placed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem among the finest orchestral compositions of the 20th Century.  This moving masterpiece of music and voice, which was written to bring solace to war-ravaged Great Britain, is being staged this weekend by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestra Marin Alsop.

Joining the BSO for this special event are the University of Maryland Concert Choir and the Peabody Children’s Chorus.  Soloists Tamara Wilson, soprano, Nicholas Phan, tenor, and bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny fill out the able ensemble.

After the blast of lightning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown
Shall Life renew these bodies?

Winston Churchill inspects the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)
Winston Churchill inspects the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

The War Requiem was commissioned to consecrate the rebuilt Cathedral of St. Michael in Coventry, England; a centuries old edifice which was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe in WWII.  Ironically, the church was ruined during a night-time bombing raid code-named Operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata).

Britten’s haunting score weaves the recognizable requiem liturgy with the shocking verse of Wilfred Owen – a British poet and soldier who was killed in action just days before the end of World War I.  The libretto also relies on familiar scripture passages punctuated with lines alluding to the horrific cost of the European war.

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
to break earths sleep at all?

Musically, the BSO has never sounded better.  From the first notes, Maestra Alsop quickly set the mood maintaining a firm grip on the opening Requiem Aeternam, then skillfully conducted the ensemble through the ebb and flow of the highly emotional piece, before tenderly transcending into the closing strains of the final movement.

The choral parts were superb, as the 114-strong University of Maryland Concert Choir was joined by 50 talented students of the Peabody Children’s Chorus.  The UM choir was particularly powerful throughout the Dies Irae.  The children’s chorus (seated aloft) shined in the Offertorium with a group that mostly consisted of teen-aged girls singing the boy soprano score.

Fac eas, Domine,
de morte transire ad vitam.

(Lord make them pass
from death to life.)

Outstanding, too, were the three soloists, Wilson, Phan and McKinny.

The Peabody Children's Chorus
The Peabody Children’s Chorus

The trio teamed seamlessly throughout with the chorus and Phan and McKinny paired extremely well in the evocative Dies Irae and in the reflective Offertorium.

Soprano Wilson seemed right at home with the stratospheric notes in the second movement’s heartbreaking, “Lacrimosa dies illa…” and artfully hit the hysterical high C in movement VI Libre Me, “…atque ventura ira.”

Tenor Phan had his sweetest moments with the second movement’s closing solo, “Move him into the sun  – ”  Phan was also pleasing with the plaintive:

Near Golgatha strolls many a priest
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness.  Whatever hope was your,
Was my life also;…

Vocally, the real stand-out of the performance was bass-baritone Ryan McKinny.  McKinny’s lush tones brought a riveting gravitas throughout the performance, capped by the melancholy mood of his moving final solo:

“Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from the sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Simon Pauly)
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Simon Pauly)

Britten’s breathtaking work closes with a tenor and baritone repeating the line:

“Let us sleep now.”

As the chorus replies:

“Requiescant in pace.  Amen.”

The curtain descended on the BSO production of Britten’s War Requiem to a well deserved standing ovation.  This production is the perfect blend of music and voice deftly executing a moving and memorable composition.

On a side note, it was this critic’s pleasure to be joined on Thursday night by a friend from the Baltimore poetry community who had never been to the BSO.  My friend said she was initially intrigued by the idea of mixing the poignant poetry with the liturgy but was simply blown away by the entire performance.  I heartily agreed.

Both novice and seasoned symphony goer will certainly enjoy this production and as such, it is highly recommended.

Prior to last night’s concert, the BSO presented a panel discussion that explored the roles Maryland and the United Kingdom played in World War II.  This discussion included a brief look at the shipbuilding which took place in Baltimore.  Panelists were Joe Balkoski, historian, 29th Infantry Division, U.S. Army;  Rob Schoeberlein, Maryland State Archives; Mike Schneider, S.S. John W. Brown Liberty Ship, retired Captain in the U.S. Navy, and Steven Melnikoff, a twice-wounded veteran who served in the 29th Infantry Division during WWII.


The BSO will stage a second performance on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem tonight, Friday, November 15, 2013 at 8 p.m. at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, Maryland.  A third and final performance will be staged on Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.  Running time for this concert is approximately ninety minuets with no intermission.  Tickets range from $29 to $84 and are available through the BSO Ticket Office, 410-783 -8000 or online.  A military discount is also available.

Please note that those who arrive early for the performance at the Meyerhoff will have the opportunity to see a lobby display exhibiting photos, letters and pamphlets from World War II.  Included in the exhibit are select images from the collection of former Baltimore City mayor, Maryland governor and World War II veteran William Donald Schaefer.  Rob Schoeberlein, Deputy City Archivist of the Maryland State Archives, is curating this collection.