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Brutally Brilliant: The Quad City Symphony’s War Requiem Performance, March 3 at the Adler Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Sunday, 11 March 2012 12:20

It was more than a concert. It was an artistic assault against war.

Performing Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece War Requiem – with its contemporary music, Latin requiem, and harrowing poetry of World War I soldier/poet Wilfred Owen – the Quad City Symphony Orchestra and its performing partners from Minnesota, Germany, and our own community on March 3 exposed the crippling sadness, human devastation, and insanity of war and found in its darkness a timeless argument for peace.

It was a gutsy decision for the symphony to program a single, 90-minute composition with unfamiliar words and music exploring the grotesque realities of war. But Quad City Symphony Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith accompanied that choice with education, altering the usual concert format by using the first 40 minutes to explain Britten’s literary restructuring of the requiem, demonstrate its fresh sound, and show key guideposts in the dramatic flow of the piece.

And the coherent, compelling performance of Britten’s epic work decisively outweighed any disruption of concert rituals.

The 350-plus musicians were divided into three separate ensembles, each with its own conductor: The augmented Quad City Symphony sat downstage with the massed chorus behind it; a chamber orchestra was positioned on an extended platform to the audience’s left; and a boys’ choir stood in the back of the balcony. From these separate locations, the groups added a visual component that separated and enhanced the formal Latin text, the personal English poems, and the angelic prayers from the boys’ choir.

Once the performance began, the massed chorus flexed its considerable vocal muscle. Its rich, mature sound was suspenseful in the Dies irae and lush in the Recordare, created musical apparitions in the Pleni sunt, and bloomed gloriously huge in the Hosanna in excelsis. The voices were mystically soft in the three demarcating requiem chorales and then scared the hell out of you in the Libera me.

Of the three featured soloists, soprano Caroline Thomas demonstrated a wide dramatic range singing from the Latin text, from her lyric, beautifully painful – almost bluesy – Lacrimosa to a strong, steely fortissimo in the Sanctus.

Baritone Philip Zawisza and tenor William Ferguson were appositely sardonic in the sarcasm of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and “half the seed of Europe.” They sang with bitter irony about the death of millions of soldiers “one by one” as though it were Gilbert & Sullivan.

Zawisza’s voice was dark and morose, suitably conveying Owen’s words of futility and death.

With considerable flexibility and nuance, Ferguson made simple melodic lines heartbreaking, lifting notes with falsetto-like airiness or pressing into their hollow edginess – giving words a surreal, appropriately disconsolate quality. Tucked deep in the quiet isolation of the Agnus Dei, he articulated the central message of the requiem through Owen’s words: “But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate.”

From the back balcony, Mark Johnson led the Minnesota Boychoir, representing innocence, purity, and soldiers of the future. Their light, youthful tone was an austere contrast to the heavy, thick adult vocal timbre on stage.

The Quad City Symphony itself was alive with Britten’s music from the first measure. The unison strings set a somber tone, successfully stretching out the awkward quintuplets and creating rhythmic and melodic tension and foreboding. The strings were assertive in terse musical crosstalk with the chorus in the Dies irae, and undulating in the stress-filled obligati in the Agnus Dei.

The orchestra showed an extraordinary capacity for dynamic extremes. The Libera me, with its searing, gut-wrenching climax, was shocking, brutal, and then stunningly silent, creating a desolate moment interrupted by the chamber orchestra – an abrupt change of musical gears and visual focus.

From a musically powerful orchestra performance, the trumpet section was brilliant in the martial music of the Dies irae, and gentle in the lyrical Recordare quartet.

The Hochshule für Musik Chamber Orchestra from Detmold, Germany – conducted by Karl-Heinz Bloemeke – was a kaleidoscope of musical color in its effective accompaniment of the baritone and tenor soloists. It provided ironically exaggerated military music when the men sang as naive recruits, and an intentionally lifeless tone for the note clusters in the Strange Meeting between two dead soldiers.

The performance was magnificent. It rose to Britten’s genius and was easily the most intense, sensitive playing I’ve heard all season. The musicians dug deep to bring the composer’s horrifying portrayal of war into sharp unappealing, focus.

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra closes its 2011-12 Masterworks series on March 31 (at the Adler Theatre) and April 1 (at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall) with the program All Singing! All Dancing! For more information, visit

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild.

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