Review: A Veterans Day and powerful ‘War Requiem’ I’ll never forget
I had to make a key decision as the performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at the Saroyan Theatre started: Should I follow the translations in the program closely, thus potentially diverting my attention and diminishing the full impact of the experience? Or should I sit back and not worry about what the words mean, letting this great orchestral and choral work wash over me?
Pictured above: From left, Gail Barbour, Anna Hamre, Rei Hotoda, Christopheren Nomura and Vale Rideout. Photo: Fresno Philharmonic
I chose the first option. Even though I’d written and filmed preview stories about the upcoming Fresno Philharmonic performance, and in the process had a good understanding about the structure and meaning of the piece, I decided that understanding the text in real time was integral to the experience. I needed a refresher on the various traditional chunks of Latin Mass incorporated by Britten into this requiem, and I wanted to make sure I understood the excerpts of World War I-era poetry that he included to be sung by the guest soloists. (Though that text was in English, it can still be hard to understand when delivered in an operatic style.) I wanted to live this piece through the words.
I’m glad I did.
The Sunday Veterans Day performance featured the orchestra joined by members of the Fresno Master Chorale, who were crammed with the instrumentalists on the crowded stage, and the Alta Sierra Intermediate School Chamber Singers, who were positioned in the balcony like heralding trumpeters. For 80 intermissionless minutes, it felt as if I were transported to another time and place. From the pomp and ceremony of war to its gritty, chaotic and claustrophobic trenches — from the blasts of terrifyingly big guns to the gentlest moments when the monster artillery fell silent — the experience for me was raw, moving and visceral.
Adding to the impact was the timing. The concert celebrated the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, which marked the official end of World War I, and it did so to the day. Lots of veterans were in the audience, no doubt remembering the soldiers who came long before them. It felt as much a community celebration as a concert.
Observations and musing about this memorable performance:
The spectacle. How the orchestra’s Vincent Keenan managed to fit all those people on stage I’ll never know, but the result was a sight that conveyed grandeur and ceremony. It was also fun to see the instrumentalists sitting in locations unfamiliar to the audience. Instead of the woodwinds being tucked near the back, say, they were closer to the audience than I’ve ever seen before. When the choir sang in the balcony, the stereo effect gave an even more stately feeling to the event. Sure, the latest wireless headphones might make you think you’re in a concert hall, but no recorded technology can surpass being there in person.
The music. Music director Rei Hotoda, along with Anna Hamre (who conducts the Fresno Master Chorale) and Gail Barbour (who conducts the Alta Sierra group), triumphed with a meticulously prepared, obviously inspired group of singers and instrumentalists. There were moments of great resonance in the piece, such as the end of the “Kyrie.” The section ends with the Latin for “Lord, have mercy upon them,” and the resolution of the final chord at Sunday’s concert was so tender it ached.
The power of the text. At times, the Britten piece can be quite literal. “I am seized with fear and trembling,” the choir sang, and there was a whoosh of sound, like a mortar blast. (For those soldiers in the trenches, the volume must have been horrific.) At other times, Wilfred Owen’s poetry is abstract and daring. Death is a character, something personified, as tangible as the canteen in a soldier’s hand. “We’ve walked quite friendly up on Death,” the choir sang, and it reminded me of a lyric from the musical “Falsettos.” (“Death is not a friend / But I hope in the end / He takes me in his arms and lets me hold his face / He takes me in his arms and whispers something funny / He lifts me in his arms and tells me to embrace his attack.”) In the Britten piece, the soldiers feel an intimacy with death that comes across as disconcerting yet somehow comfortable.
The soprano: Wow. Celena Shafer’s “entrance” was stunning. From where I was seated, the first glimpse I had of her was when she stood to sing in the “Dies Irae” section. Her shimmering white gown was a glittery contrast with the sea of black-clad choir members standing around her. It was as if a brilliant follow-spot had plucked her out from the crowd. Shafer brought an impressive intensity and gravitas to her delivery, especially in the “Sanctus,” which was piercing and emotional.
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The tenor and the baritone. Positioned far away from Shafer, tenor Vale Rideout and baritone Christopheren Nomura were closer to the audience. During most of the piece, they offered what you might consider a standard concert vocal performance: standing still, eyes forward, all the focus on the singing. But in “Libera Me,” the final and most gripping section, the presentation became more operatic and dramatic. The singers interacted with each other as characters, keeping their eyes on each other as they sang. They stood and sat in carefully overlapping intervals. And what a story it is of which they sang: One soldier makes a journey through a “dull tunnel, long since scooped through granites which titanic wars had groined.” It’s clear he has just been killed in battle. He encounters a group of sleeping men, one of whom springs up and recognizes him.
The chilling and memorable line. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” Nomura sang with fervor and sadness. A few in the audience gasped. He continued: “I knew you in this dark: for you so frowned yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.”
The reaction. Sitting there in the darkness, I was devastated. I silently wept over all those years lost by all those young men killed in World War I. I thought of all that potential — all that life — blown apart and gassed and bayoneted and otherwise silenced far too soon. Yes, there was a “winning” side in the war. Yet Britten, a pacifist, chose to end the piece not with the loud, triumphant roar of victory, but with a grace and gentleness that concludes simply with “Let them rest in peace.” He did not pile on the platitudes about how we are heading for a time when there will be no more war. (Indeed, the “Great War” was followed only 20 years later by another conflict just as horrific.) He was content simply to mourn the dead.
The final Amen. Could any final moment in choral music be more somber and melancholy, yet also so hopeful? As the young singers in the balcony joined the adults down below to resolve that last, haunting chord, I felt embraced by the music. For as long as I live, I will never forget how I spent this Veterans Day being uplifted by this beautiful and heartfelt performance. It was a rattling, illuminating, deeply profound experience. I found myself thinking of the extremes of human nature. We so often descend to almost unspeakable depths in war. Yet somehow, against all odds, we can reach the highest pinnacles of artistic achievement to commemorate, contemplate and fight against it.