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Review of Kurt Masur Conducting the San Francisco Symphony in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

Review in The Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group, October 24, 2002.

By Cheryl North

Some works of art - like Picasso's Guernica and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem - are capable of hitting an audience like an earthquake.

Just such an earthquake hit Davies Symphony Hall Thursday night when the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir, soprano Christine Brewer, tenor Jerry Hadley, and baritone William Stone performed Britten's masterwork under the leadership of conductor Kurt Masur, and his adjutant, conductor Edwin Outwater.

The emotional force was comparable to the physical force of San Francisco's 1906 jolt, with music of the deepest urgency and impact coming from the orchestra, which was divided into two sections, packing the stage with the three soloists on risers behind. The adult chorus on the balcony areas to the orchestra's rear and flanks was augmented by the ethereal support of the childrens' choirs and the organ sounding from the high second balcony at the back of the building. The numbers alone were daunting, but it was Britten's music and the text, brilliantly channeled through Masur's musical sensibility, that shook souls to their depths.

Britten's Requiem was commissioned for the dedication on May 30, 1962 of the reconstructed St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry, a beloved British landmark destroyed by fire bombs during World War II. A powerful amalgam of many time periods, it hearkens to the past with its references to the medieval Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead, sung in Latin. The Mass sections feature a soprano soloist, Ms. Brewer, representing humanity, and a choir of mixed adult voices accompanied by the larger of the two orchestral divisions. Brewer's voice was huge and warm, even through the brutally angular vocal lines Britten often required, as well as in the haunting echoes of Mozart's "Lacrimosa."

Within the Mass format, Britten injected jolting razor slashes of contemporary terror by interpolating the English-language poems of World War I enlistee Wilfred Owen, written in the trenches of France - verses scribbled on blood- and mud-spattered bits of paper, found on his machine-gunned corpse (age 25) at the war's end. Britten assigned these verses to the male soloists and the smaller chamber orchestra, conducted by Outwater. Hadley's tenor has never sounded more ringing and true and Stone's resonant baritone was redolent with maturity.

While Britten's setting is generally harmonic, it is shot through with a plethora of sonic sword thrusts. There are starkly isolated bell sounds juxtaposed with chant-like vocal lines. Chilling tritones abound (the tritone is a particularly grating harmonic interval which was actually banned in church music during medieval times), as well as sections of stabbing staccato singing of such words as "Con-fu-ta-tis mal-e-dic-tis" and "Ben-e-dic-tis." Skewed descending scales add even further shiver to the musical textures.

Masur brillantly illuminated Britten's many musical "word paintings" - passages in which musical sounds mimic specific words in the text. There is a quivering clarinet motif accompanying the tenor's lines "Move him (the dying soldier) into the sun--Gently its touch woke him once...If anything might rouse him now/ The kind old sun will know." But, it was an incisive thrust atypically inflicted by the harp that vividly evoked the appropriate sense of terror that accompanied the lines "...limbs...full-nerved--still warm--too hard to stir?" Britten's masterwork, as performed Thursday, powerfully drove home Owen's painful question, "Was it for THIS the clay (i.e., man) grew tall?"

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