“All a poet can do today is warn,” wrote Wilfred Owen in 1918, in the midst of World War I. This statement is used in the epigraph of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” performed by the Kansas City Symphony on Friday in Helzberg Hall.
It was the orchestra’s first performance of the work in over 20 years, Britten demanding large forces for this deliberate yet subtle work: full orchestra, mixed chorus and soprano soloist, chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists, and children’s chorus and organ.
Music director Michael Stern conducted the large ensemble, including the 160-voice Kansas City Symphony Chorus, with associate conductor Jason Seber leading the teenage Allegro Choirs (traditionally placed some distance away, here they were at rear center stage).
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, baritone Stephen Powell and soprano Christine Brewer were expressive and powerful.
The requiem premiered in 1962, commissioned to consecrate the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by German bombing in 1940. Britten, a pacifist, used the text of the Missa pro Defunctis (Mass of the Dead) and Owen’s anti-war poetry to both remember the fallen and decry the folly of war. Owen died in battle one week before the armistice.
The requiem opened and closed with a solemn plea, a request for “eternal rest” with chiming bells, the plea intoned amidst defiantly rising mutterings. Britten’s text painting, vocal layering and use of harmony were dramatically and psychologically potent, indicating desperate anger, heartfelt sorrow and yearning for relief.
The intimacy of the chamber group emphasizing the personal nature of the text, Griffey entering on the frantic “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” against harshly dissonant accompaniment. The bright colors of the children’s voices injected innocence into the scheme, supported by Jan Kraybill on the organ.
Martial elements of brass fanfares and militaristic percussion, with a dreaded march in low strings, prefaced the punctuated and powerful “Dies irae,” and its crushing return. The male soloists manically laugh at Death, the winds swirling deliriously. Brewer achieved astounding leaps with the power of a blazing, fearsome angel, and the transition from subversive, chattering chorus to an explosion of ringing brass was breathtaking.
Throughout the work, these ferocious moments certainly impressed, but it was the somber moments that held the most emotional weight. The shimmering tremolo under Griffey’s tender “Move him into the sun” created an otherworldly stillness during the Lacrimosa, as did his pleading “Dona nobis pacem” like a fading apparition.
Powell, though, delivered the work’s emotional peak as the Strange Friend, the killed enemy met in death, the chilling text intoned with no accompaniment, only desolate heartache.
The male soloists, together then, request “Let us sleep now,” the children’s voices responding first, gradually adding the full ensemble in a stunningly subtle crescendo, then dissipating to the final “Amen.”
They added off stage bells in the end, effective if unnecessary, Stern sustaining the contemplative state of the work.
Britten’s “War Requiem” is a stoutly anti-war work, and was conceived as a deliberate act of reconciliation, casting British (Peter Pears) and German (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) soloists at the premiere. The soprano was to have been Russian Galina Vishnevskaya, but the Soviet government would not allow her to perform, so she was replaced by British Heather Harper. The requiem was completed in December 1961, just after the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, in the midst of the Cold War. The fraught nature of international politics, poised again to escalate into bloody battle (and continuously so, 55 years later), added furor to the work’s message of futility and the ghastly sameness of the result – the dead are dead and the living mourn, eternally.
Additional performances 8 p.m. May 6 and 2 p.m. May 7. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $23-$88. 816-471-0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.