Monday, 8 April 2013

SSO Concert: WAR REQUIEM / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (5 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 April 2013 with the title "Britten's blockbuster".

Once in several years comes a momentous musical event that deserves to be called a blockbuster. In 2004, it was Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and its associated choirs under Music Director Shui Lan. This year being the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, his War Requiem took the honour.

Conceived for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral beside the bombed ruins of its predecessor, this was the pacifist English composer’s statement on the pity of war and a hope for reconciliation. Combining the Roman Catholic requiem mass with selected poems by First World War poet Wilfred Owen (above), it ran for a heart-rending 90 minutes that was both poignant and highly charged.

Seated for a change in Circle Three, this reviewer was afforded a celestial vista of the epic (below); three soloists, two orchestras, over 200 choristers in the gallery, and the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir perched high up in the left wing of Circle Two. Sonic and visual spectaculars were the very reason why this hall was built.

The voices of the three singers Elena Zelenskaya, Barry Banks and Detlef Roth (each matching the same nations represented by Britten’s original cast of Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) wafted naturally and unimpeded to the upper reaches, as clear as crystal. Just as impressive were the children, conducted by Wong Lai Foon with Shane Thio as organ accompanist, who were impeccable in deportment and intonation for their small but important part,  

The main drama took place on stage, where two separate groups were pitted in the cut and thrust of the musical exchange. Lim Yau led the chamber orchestra that accompanied the male soloists singing the Owen poems, while Shui Lan helmed the main body, chorus and soprano for the Latin liturgy. Two distinct works were running in parallel, but inextricably joined by Britten’s seamless welding of the musical narrative.

There were many high points, including the mounting vehemence in Dies Irae, splendidly driven by the four choirs augmented by voices from the Shanghai Opera, and the Abraham episode where the father slew not only Isaac, but “half the seed of Europe, one by one.” What sort of loving God callously kills his own children? If one seeks scepticism in a sacred work, here it is served cold by the atheist composer.

This was emphatically not a requiem in praise of God and his eternal kingdom, but one seeking deliverance, dressed up with brassy splendour in the Hosanna in Excelsis, and the final irony of the two enemy soldiers united peacefully in deathly repose, eloquently delivered in the duet by Banks and Roth in Libera Me. If peace is accomplished by dying in futility, is it not better sought by the living, the listener is asked.

This Singapore premiere of a 20th century classic by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was an artistic triumph from start to finish, and a moving experience for all involved. It was also accomplished outside of the Singapore Arts Festival, setting a new bar for that institution that formerly presented musical blockbusters to emulate. And would it have been too much to ask for enough programme booklets be printed so that all those who attended have a souvenir to remember it by?    

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