Sunday, May 7, 2017

Reflections from the Kansas City Symphony 5.7.17 Britten's War Requiem

If you are expecting me to write a "critical" review of the Kansas City Symphony's performance today at Helzberg Hall...the performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1961)... forget about it. You came to the wrong place. I am not a reviewer, which I have stated before. I am an unapologetic "homer." This is my hometown Symphony, good or bad, and I will never say anything critical about it. I knew I had to share it in my blog so everyone can hear how incredible this work is, as are the musicians and conductor who brought it to life today. There was nothing to be critical of anyway.
I did my homework. I have the famous 1963 recording with Britten himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the Highgate School Choir, the Bach Choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The soloists were Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), THE Peter Pears (tenor) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). This is the gold standard. I pulled it out and listened to it Wednesday evening. Mind bending. Even the KCS program listed this as the recording of choice. I was not expecting today's performance to be the equal of this recording, but in fact it was.
Since I am not a professional music critic, I can pretty much say anything I want in this space. So let me riff a bit.
139 singers in the adult chorus. 37 girls in the youth choir. I decided not to try and count how many musicians were on stage...but let me assure you that every inch of space on the stage was occupied. There was a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, and an organ, played by Jan Kraybill.
The soloists were Christine Brewer (soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) and Stephen Powell (baritone). All three were spot on and powerful.
Britten. Pacifist. Wrote this to condemn all war, not any one war in particular. This is a legit requiem in form and structure, but does not have a religious message. Uses the once forbidden C-F# interval to great effect. I could see Maestro Stern signing as he conduced...he was in the moment for sure.
With so many elements to coordinate and integrate into a performance, the atmosphere from my seat seemed very relaxed and certain. It all came together quite elegantly. One would think it to be a struggle to keep everyone together, bit I didn't sense any struggle at all.
The tympanist of the "chamber" orchestra gets my vote for best multi-tasker; he played a bass drum, gong, and cymbal with different mallets all in succession in one passage.Nice.
Charles Bruffy, the Chorus Director, made a comment at the post-concert Q&A, which was awesome by-the-way, that I also made note of. He said the hardest parts for the chorus were the soft parts. And that's exactly what I noted were the most powerful moments of the performance...when the entire chorus was singing softly in unison. The loud, forte sections were wonderful, but I felt the soft sections carried the day.
The performance was well balanced. Phrasing was well executed. Balance was perfect. Entrances were clean and sharp. The overall tone of the vast ensemble was rich and warm. Helzberg Hall can do no wrong. Except, as Maestro Stern noted afterward, its only flaw is not having a belfry for bells.
Come on KC, what's with all the coughing and cell a symphony concert??? If you are that tuberculin, stay home....there, I said it. And, as my friend Susie Yang pointed out, if you don't know how to turn your phone off, then perhaps you should not have one.
But the best part of the performance came at the very end. 1.5 hours of magic boil down to the final "Amen". And here we had the C-F# chord for the "A" followed by the soothing grace of an F major power-chord from heaven for the "men". Sublime.
And a big shout out to my Mom, Elnora Welker. We share season tickets to the symphony. I can't think of anything better than spending a beautiful Spring afternoon with her, enjoying a pre-concert Chardonnay at Helzberg Hall. Cheers to you Mom.

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