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KC STAR: KC Symphony & Chorus bring Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ back for first time in decades

Christine Brewer. Photo by Christian Steiner
Soprano Christine Brewer has extensive history with the “War Requiem,” both in live concert and on an acclaimed recording conducted by Kurt Masur. 

April 29, 2017
The Classical Beat
Special to The Star

On May 30, 1962, when Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” was first performed to celebrate the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, Europe had still not fully recovered from the devastation of World War II, and the Cold War was in full force.

Britten’s heartfelt music depicting the horror of war and the hope for peace made a tremendous impact on the audience. It wasn’t long before the “War Requiem” was recognized as one of the greatest musical works of the 20th century.

The Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus and distinguished soloists, including soprano Christine Brewer, will perform Britten’s “War Requiem” May 5-7 at Helzberg Hall.

The original Coventry Cathedral, a 14th-century Gothic church, was almost completely destroyed by Nazi bombing. The new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the original cathedral, which now serves as a contemplative garden. The symbolism of the cathedral and its history inspired Britten, a pacifist, to compose his deeply felt “Requiem.”

Brewer, who has extensive history with the “War Requiem,” both in live concert and on an acclaimed recording conducted by Kurt Masur, once performed it to celebrate the rebuilding of Dresden’s cathedral, another spiritual monument destroyed by World War II.

“I have to tell you, it was so moving to me because of where it was and because the audience was so moved by it when it finished,” she said. “We were in church. It was a religious experience, a spiritual experience. I still can’t really describe it. I love this piece so much.”

Britten used the text of the Roman Catholic Mass as the basis for “War Requiem,” but interspersed poems by Wilfred Owen, who served as a rifleman in World War I and was tragically killed shortly before the armistice was signed.

One of Owen’s poems retells the Biblical story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In Owen’s poem, however, Abraham does not heed the angel who bids him to stay his hand:

“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Brewer, who brings opera to grade-school students in the coal-mining town of Marissa, Ill., recalls the impact the story made on the children.

“I thought it was going to be daunting for sixth-graders, so I gave their teacher the recording I had done in London, and she played one movement a day for the kids for a few weeks just to get the music in their ears,” Brewer said. “A lot of these kids, their brothers and sisters can’t afford to go to college, so they join the military, and a lot of them at that time were stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan, places where it was really dangerous.

“So one boy raised his hand and said, ‘You know, that one part about Abraham and Isaac? That’s not the real story that’s in the Bible. Abraham did not kill his son.’ I asked why he thought the poet chose to write it that way, and he said, ‘I think Abraham is supposed to be the old men who start the wars, and Isaac is the young men who are getting killed.’ And I thought, man, these kids get it.”

Beside the unorthodox setting of the “Requiem” text, Britten also uses an unusual combination of forces. In addition to the large orchestra, there’s also a chamber orchestra, children’s choir and three soloists. Brewer will be joined by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Stephen Powell.

“In this piece, Britten has these two young soldiers, robust, innocent, out there doing their job,” Brewer said. “And then you have the choir and the soprano soloist singing the Latin Mass. I always feel like I’m part of an angel choir. I feel like part of what my job is in this piece is to comfort these soldiers.”

Michael Stern, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, says that even though the “War Requiem” was a response to the first two world wars and the Cold War, the work is more relevant and powerful than ever.

“The people who lived through the bombing of London who were still alive 15 to 20 years after World War II heard this music differently than we can,” Stern said. “That said, we see images, even recent ones from Syria and Afghanistan and war exercises in North Korea, we have Americans at risk all over the world. The idea that violence and conflict can be posited as a solution to our increasingly connected global community is crazy, especially since the violence we visit upon ourselves becomes ever more terrifying. Where does it end? It can only end badly.”

Stern also said the Kansas City Symphony hasn’t performed the “War Requiem” in more than 20 years.

“It’s long overdue,” he said. “It’s such a remarkable piece on a musical level. Britten was a real pacifist. It wasn’t window dressing for him. But the ‘War Requiem’ is uplifting, in a way. Even though it doesn’t end with a conclusive answer and asks a lot of questions, there is some measure of hope for humanity, always. And Britten makes that clear. We’re not giving up. We don’t learn from our mistakes, but this piece makes the case that we should.”

8 p.m. May 5 & 6 and 2 p.m. May 7. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $23-$88. 816-471-0400 or here.

Read the full article on the KC STAR website.