September 20, 2014
Americans are not as anniversary mad as Europeans, and this has both up and down sides.
A visitor to Continental countries at any given time will find him- or herself in the midst of a “Goethe Year,” a “Bach Year,” even a “Forgotten Local Playwright Year,” and these might mark not only birthdays but what the Germans call “deathdays,” or even first performances of later famed pieces or openings of theater buildings or festivals. All of these can quickly become both a crutch for programming choices and a distraction from the wide array of artistic possibilities in a given season.
On the other hand, real exploration of an individual composer, writer or painter can be extremely rewarding and filled with discovery. With an Italian music director, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra certainly has given us some fascinating and thrilling X-rays of 200th birthday anniversary boy Giuseppe Verdi, while Chicago Opera Theater scored with an exciting production of his rarely staged “Joan of Arc.” Lyric Opera of Chicago has offered worthy productions of “Meistersinger” and “Parsifal” in calendar 2013 for Richard Wagner’s 200th, the latter running through this month.
Is it because he has only half the years to his centenary that Englishman Benjamin Britten, born in Sussex, Nov. 22, 1913, has to some extent fallen between the stools in Chicago? No works from either local opera company from this most important of postwar opera composers. A limited number of pieces from the CSO (the most interesting of which come in late May and early June 2014 as a part of the spring “Truth to Power” Festival), an ambitious plan at Ravinia this summer that had to be postponed because of illness, a powerful “War Requiem” at Grant Park. It was left to the vibrant University of Chicago Presents and the newcomer Collaborative Arts Festival of young tenor Nicholas Phan to give us more in-depth and varied programming on this fascinating, complex man and composer of such a varied and strong output.
This week the CSO IS offering a major work, the “War Requiem” as well, the first Orchestra Hall performances since those led by Britten’s great friend Mstislav Rostropovich 11 years ago. Switzerland’s Charles Dutoit, one of the orchestra’s most reliable senior guest conductors, seems to be touring the work, having presented it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the same three soloists last month.
Based on Thursday night’s concert, there are many things to recommend this take on the near-90-minute, 1962 pacifist response to the 1940 German bombing of the town of Coventry and its ancient cathedral. Dutoit takes the orchestral part (parts, really, as there is a chamber orchestra of principal players surrounding the conductor’s podium) apart and reassembles it before our eyes and ears — the real highlight of this grand and moving choral work is instrumental here.
But the CSO Chorus, prepared by chorus master Duain Wolfe, and the three soloists — Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya in her CSO debut, veteran English tenor John Mark Ainsley (ditto) and German baritone Matthias Goerne — each seemed uncomfortable with enunciation at times (especially Goerne) and in the cases of Pavloskaya and Ainsley, pitch and timbre (she) and projection (he). Although the texts — interweaving sections of the traditional Latin mass for the dead and the biting English poetry of Wilfred Owen (who died in service, a week before the 1918 Armistice) — are printed in the program book, the supertitles failing 20 minutes or so into the performance underscored these deficiencies.
The Chicago Children’s Choir, placed antiphonally, and with organ, on two sides of the lower balcony, were stalwart and characterful under their artistic director Josephine Lee’s expertguidance. The orchestral detail and color, though, was the chief accomplishment here in a work that should also connect with us dramatically and intimately through its words.