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Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ smartly performed, perfectly timed by Grant Park



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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:32AM

This weekend’s superb concerts at the Grant Park Music Festival marked the first major Chicago commemorations of the centenary of the birth of the great British composer Benjamin Britten. They also might have been the only nod by a major area cultural institution to the weekend’s Pride activities.

Although Lyric Opera of Chicago, oddly, is neglecting a composer whose works it has long championed, Ravinia follows Grant Park with none other than Maxim Vengerov in the Highland Park festival’s first performance of the Violin Concerto July 17 and then, with music director James Conlon leading both concerts, the Ravinia premiere of one of the “Parables for Church Performance” — “The Burning Fiery Furnace” — at Trinity Episcopal Church in the North Shore suburb on Aug. 17.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will offer a panorama of a Britten works next season in several programs led by guests Charles Dutoit and Jaap van Zweden. And University of Chicago Presents offers an eight-concert chamber and vocal festival this fall in Hyde Park.

The 1962 “War Requiem” is one of Britten’s largest and most performed works. Grant Park and its artistic director Carlos Kalmar offered it in 2004 as well. But it is ever appropriate as a musical work both highly personal and universal, a philosophical meditation on war and its human costs and a setting of consistently contemporary poems of Wilfred Owen, one of many brilliant casualties of the First World War. Themes from both the Latin Mass for the Dead and Owen’s pen on reconciliation divine and personal are also laden with the personal stories behind the composition.

The Requiem was commissioned to open the new cathedral in the English town of Coventry, built at the ruins of its medieval predecessor bombed to bits along with 600 of the town’s residents in 1942 in one of the hardest German attacks on Britain in World War II. Britten wrote the piece with the unique voice and character of his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, in mind and with major German and Russian singers in the other two solo parts to pull together his pacifist perspective on the folly of both military and “cold” wars. He also used texts of Owen, a gay poet, and dedicated the work to four close male friends who died in World War II or due to experiences in it.

Kalmar excels in such large canvas and intense works, and he marshaled his orchestral and choral forces, including both director Christopher Bell’s always outstanding Grant Park Chorus and Josephine Lee’s pitch-perfect Chicago Children’s Choir, with power and subtlety as appropriate. The 80-minute piece constitutes a narrative, and soprano Erin Wall, repeating her triumph from nine years ago, in the Latin portions and English tenor Jeremy Ovenden and bass Alan Held as Owen’s dead, yet deathless, soldiers carried it through with beauty, emotion, individuality and intelligence.

The separate chamber ensemble called for in the score was hard to differentiate from the full orchestra on the Pritzker Pavilion stage Friday night in Millennium Park — though both were excellent — but the co-ed Children’s Choir sang with the required sound of boys’ voices so important to the British church tradition and to Britten’s sound world. Except for an overamplified gong, this was as fine a representation of the work as one could hear, its public and outdoor setting and its sharing of the creative contributions of three great gay men during a historic week only enhancing the memorable experience.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7)

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