Review: May Festival reaches heavenly heights with 'War Requiem'

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

Conductor James Conlon lowered his arms slowly while the audience sat in stunned silence for a full minute at the conclusion of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” performed by the Cincinnati May Festival on Saturday night in Music Hall.

Under Conlon’s direction, it had been an intense, gripping and often harrowing journey of this monumental work, which both mourns the dead and decries the futility of war.

In the end, the celestial voices of the Cincinnati Children’s Choir intoned the “Requiem aeternam” from their perch in the highest recesses of the hall and onstage, the May Festival Chorus offered a final, radiant “Amen.” It was a breathtaking, if still unsettling, conclusion to this 20th-century masterpiece.

Britten, a lifelong pacifist, wrote the “War Requiem” for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England, destroyed in bombing raids in World War II. His unique structure weaves together the Latin Requiem Mass texts with vivid and bitter anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, who was killed during World War I.

On Saturday, the juxtaposition summed up the horrors of war, but it also illustrated the power of art to inspire as well as to disturb. (Conlon also led the May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in their last performance of the “War Requiem” in Carnegie Hall in 2001, one month after 9/11.)

More than 320 performers were on Music Hall’s stage and in the upper gallery for the piece, which calls for chorus, full orchestra with organ, soprano and children’s choir for the Latin liturgy. For the Owen poems, sung by tenor and baritone, Conlon led a chamber group of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians (including timpani) within the main orchestra.

Conlon’s view was vividly dramatic, and at times almost operatic. He galvanized his musicians and singers to searing climaxes and seamlessly pulled back to allow Britten’s serene and bleak moments to breathe.

The “Tuba mirum” was a fearsome display of brass fanfares, pounding timpani and bass drum. The “Sanctus,” sung by soprano Christine Brewer and the chorus, began against gleaming chimes and bells, and grew into a frenzy of unearthly chanting – an unforgettable moment.

The May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, was simply magnificent. The chorus caught the bleak color of the “Requiem aeternam,” a solemn and timeless movement sung with chimes. Delivery was clipped in the “Dies irae,” which evolved into a shout to the universe. The color and control of expression in the “Libera me” was stunning.

Soprano soloist Brewer was slow to warm; her first entrance was forceful to the point of shrillness. But she later soared effortlessly over full choral and orchestral forces, and her “Lacrimosa” was deeply moving.

In Wilfred Owen’s poems, lyric tenor Alek Shrader was touching in his delivery of the emotional “Move him into the sun.” He began effortlessly in the stratosphere for “One ever hangs,” Owen’s image of Christ on the battlefield.

Baritone Phillip Addis communicated with intelligence and superb diction. He riveted whenever he took the stage, but particularly in the work’s final moments, as he described “the pity of war.”

Addis and Shrader were central to Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” the biblical story of Abraham who binds his son Isaac, but instead of the Angel’s intercession, slays him “and half the seed of Europe.” That chilling pronouncement was followed by a high-toned Latin prayer sung by children’s voices.

The Cincinnati Children’s Choir, prepared by Robyn Lana, was impeccable throughout its substantial role. Singing from the top of the gallery, the young singers surrounded the audience with pure sound that was truly celestial in Music Hall’s space.

The Cincinnati Symphony has been performing at the top of its game, and was splendid in every moment of Britten’s demanding score.

Before the concert, Jonathan Cohen, dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Clifton, recognized Conlon as the recipient of the Roger E. Joseph Prize, presented to him last week in New York for his efforts to promote and perform the music of forgotten or unknown composers who were suppressed by the Nazis. Said Conlon: “Those pieces still exist. They just have to be played.”