The main stage of Carnegie Hall was fit to bursting on Wednesday night. Aside from the seats for orchestra and chorus, the space was situated with three soloists’ chairs, Robert Spano’s podium, and three separate percussion stations on the left, center, and right of the stage. The percussion instruments included timpani, side drum, bass drum, three types of cymbals, gongs, bells, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and harp. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus - some 200 performers - were warming up and filing in. All were to perform Benjamin Britten’s titanic War Requiem, an 85-minute piece that also incorporates a children’s chorus. Located in the dress circle, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus filled this role. As an Atlanta native who now lives in Brooklyn (and who visits Carnegie Hall whenever possible), I was excited to see the combination of these musical forces playing out. And I grew even more excited and moved throughout the performance, which was startlingly and carefully detailed. Every syllable conveyed the horror of war and the universal longing for peace.

Robert Spano © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano
© Andrew Eccles

Mr Spano and the musicians moved their way tirelessly through Britten’s work, composed in 1961 and 1962. Aside from the manpower requirements, the daunting score divides these forces into three groups that don’t come together until the end. Up to this point, there are three distinct sections: the orchestra with soprano and chorus singing traditional Requiem texts in Latin; the baritone and tenor singing poetry by Wilfred Owen (who died in World War I), and accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra; and finally, the children's choir (also in Latin) and organ. The result was an exquisite interplay of soloists with ensembles, of sacred Latin barely whispered from the chorus and graphic English poetry recited by the tenor and baritone, not to mention the sounds reaching up to us from both stage and dress circle.

Tenor Thomas Cooley, a last-minute stand-in for Anthony Dean Griffey, had a dramatic command of the part nonetheless, and baritone Stephen Powell sent shivers down my spine with his final solo, with the chamber orchestra violin wheedling in the background: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in the dark…” The two performers conveyed guilt, fear, and sorrow throughout the concert, their voices overlapping and falling against each other in the final line of poetry - “Let us sleep now”- as the harp strains came in angelically beneath. As soprano soloist, Evelina Dobraceva was radiant, melting her lacrimosas and sanctuses into our ears. Most impressive was the Atlanta Chorus, sometimes so hushed that it felt as if they were glowing, emanating sounds rather than singing them. Their periodic resolution of the recurring tritone, particularly the final Requiescant in pace and Amen, were truly heavenly.

The other ensembles were on fine form as well. The Orchestra remained unwavering in its delivery of the passionate music, navigating the shifting meters and moods under Mr Spano’s sureness. The ascending and descending arpeggios in the brass sounded sinister, as if mocking the fanfares of war. The percussionists, leaping about from drum to drum, were excellent in their range of timbre and dynamic. From rumbling bass drum to cymbal crashes to tapping of the snare to the clattering of the final movement, they kept the tension alive. The strings were resolute from the murmurs of the Requiem aeternam to the agitated tempos and intense volumes of the Dies irae and Libera me. Joining in from the dress circle, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus brought eerie, faceless emotion with their sections. During the Offertorium, their part was interspersed with smatters of sound from below, as the tenor and baritone interjected echoes from the Owen poem: “Half the seed of Europe”.

The convergences of the three separate sections only continued, mounting in tension and volume, until the finale, at which point Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Ms Dobraceva granted the tenor and baritone their eternal rest. Despite the tumultuous nature of the music and Owen’s poetry, the parting message was one of hope and peace. The attention paid by all performers to the score and to the text culminated in this glorious evocation of perpetual light and a chorus of angels.

****1