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Grant Park goes bold with Britten’s ‘War Requiem’

The late composer-conductor BenjamBritten.

The late composer-conductor Benjamin Britten.

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‘War Requiem’

♦ 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

♦ Grant Park Music Festival, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

♦ Free admission

♦ (312) 742-7638;

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Updated: June 28, 2013 3:27PM

In the decades since Benjamin Britten died in 1976, the British composer has regularly been described as underappreciated, but it might be time to retire that label.

His popularity has steadily grown and with hundreds of organizations worldwide marking the centennial of his birth this year with performances of his operas and concert works, this 20th-century musical giant is getting his due at last.

The Grant Park Music Festival will add its voice to the international celebration with back-to-back performances Friday and Saturday of a work that became an almost instant classic when it debuted in 1962: Britten’s “War Requiem.”

“When it comes to a big anniversary, you want to do something pretty bold, and we thought, ‘Well, the Britten ‘War Requiem’ — it has Grant Park written all over it,” said Carlos Kalmar, Grant Park’s artistic director and principal conductor.

In 1958, by then a leading figure on the British musical scene, Britten was asked to contribute a new work for the inaugural concert of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been pulverized by Nazi bombs in November 1940.

He was immediately thrilled by the project, and drawing on his strong pacifist convictions, he created a virtually unparalleled 85-minute work in which a setting of the traditional Latin mass for the dead is interwoven with nine war poems by English poet Wilfred Owen.

“Even though the piece was written for the opening of the Conventry Cathedral, he wanted to do something that would honor, commemorate and mourn the soldiers of all wars,” Kalmar said. “It is a piece that is very universal.”

Making the requiem even more unusual is its structure, with three distinctive music forces: a full orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist (at Grant Park, Erin Wall); a chamber orchestra and a pair of male soloists (tenor Jeremy Ovenden and bass Alan Held), and a boys’ choir (Chicago Children’s Choir) that is usually distanced in some way.

“It seems like an enormous piece of music,” said Grant Park chorus director Christopher Bell “Yet there is an extraordinarily intimate, personal aspect to the whole thing that makes the piece very moving and thought-provoking.”

His favorite section, which still gives him goosebumps, comes at the climax of the final section, “Libera Me.” The movement begins quietly and then builds in speed and volume until it culminates with an explosive G minor chord, opening what Bell envisions as kind of hole in the world.

The “War Requiem” was an almost immediate success, with more than 50 subsequent performances during the just first few years after its debut; when the first recording came out in 1963, it sold 200,000 copies that year — a staggering amount for a classical work.

Although it’s infrequently performed because of the size of forces it requires, the work is nonetheless considered an established part of the standard repertoire. Top-level choruses, Bell said, are expected to be familiar with it and able to handle its technical hurdles.

“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s really easy but we get to know what to do — how to prepare this piece and how to perform it,” he said. “The challenge is to do it absolutely with conviction and commitment, so that the audience gets it.”

For a video, prepared by Britten-Pears Foundation, about Britten’s ‘War Requiem,’ go to:

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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