Requiems, British and American

By Sedgwick Clark

In the space of a single week, New Yorkers were treated to a pair of requiems at Carnegie Hall that combined the traditional Mass for the Dead text with modern-day poetry to create strikingly personal visions of final rest. In 1961 Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem, interspersing anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, a British Army officer during World War I who was killed in battle a week before the Armistice. American composer Christopher Rouse followed Britten’s lead in including poems by six authors in his Requiem, which received its New York premiere on May 5 as the first offering in Carnegie’s lamented final season of Spring for Music concerts.

Robert Spano led a bracing, well-prepared performance of the Britten on April 30. One could understand virtually every word sung by the expressive soloists: tenor Thomas Cooley (replacing an indisposed Anthony Dean Griffey at the last minute), baritone Stephen Powell, and soprano Evelina Dobračeva. No less impressive for their articulation were the Atlanta Symphony’s peerless Chorus, initially trained by the legendary Robert Shaw and expertly maintained by Norman Mackenzie since 2000, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus directed by Dianne Berkun-Menaker. Conductor Spano’s aplomb, when a cell phone tinkled away down front during the pause preceding the work’s moving conclusion (“Let us sleep now . . .”), was admirable. He simply held his arms out and waited patiently until the infernal machine stopped before cuing the tenor and baritone. The extended fermata may even have added emotional weight to the moment. Britten’s War Requiem grows in stature with every hearing, and the Atlanta performers did it proud.

I like Christopher Rouse’s music. It’s visceral, exciting, and delights in employing unfamiliar percussion, usually at full-throated fortissimo. And yet his 90-minute “magnum opus” is quite capable of affecting lyricism, as in the Requiem’s soft final choral moments. Rouse selected his texts from poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Ellerton, in addition to the German chorale “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” and the words of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead.

The Carnegie Hall performance, with Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic, baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and Brooklyn Youth Orchestra, was only the work’s second outing anywhere. Rouse was halfway through the composition when terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center. However he had conceived the work, it’s difficult to imagine that the national upheaval of the event did not find itself into the piece, at least subconsciously. He finished it in July 2002, revising it in 2012. Its premiere was conducted by Grant Gershon in Los Angeles on March 25, 2007. L.A. Times critic Mark Swed called it “the first great traditional American Requiem.”

I wish I could agree.

All too often, such as in section No. 15, Rouse overloads his scoring and descends into undifferentiated noise when the huge percussion section unloads unmercifully against the chorus. Was the resulting chaos intentional?

Alan Gilbert has probably conducted and recorded more Rouse works than anyone else in the world. Unaccountably, the Westminster Symphonic Choir seemed ill-prepared, failing to articulate throughout even in the traditional Mass sections. Hardly a word was understandable—a criticism I heard from many fellow audience members during intermission. The most frequent audience comment was that there should have been surtitles. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo was often covered, and the Philharmonic players were no help in this regard, ignoring conductor Gilbert despite his repeated motions for softer playing. Another rehearsal might have made all the difference.

Even the program’s layout of the text was wanting: It would have been clearer in Carnegie’s dim lighting if, like the Atlanta’s Britten text, the translation of the Mass had been in italics.


Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/8 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. Webern: Im Sommerwind. Berg: Violin Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).

5/9 Carnegie Hall at 7:30. Spring for Music. Cincinnati Symphony/James Conlon. R. Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses. John Adams: Harmonium.

5/10 Zankel Hall. Ensemble ACJW/Susanna Mälkki; Topi Lehtipuu, tenor. Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1. Jukka Tiensuu: Mora. George Benjamin: Three Inventions. John Adams: Chamber Symphony.

5/12 Meredith Willson Hall at the Juilliard School. Francesca Rose dePasquale, violin; John Root, piano. Mozart: Sonata for Violin and Piano in C major, K. 303. Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2. Chausson: Poème, Op. 25. Bartók: Rhapsody No. 1, Sz 86/BB 94.

5/15 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Bernarda Fink, mezzo; Women of the New York Choral Artists; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

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