John Frayne | Ending the Krannert season with a (big) bang

John Frayne | Ending the Krannert season with a (big) bang

On May 1, the audience for Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" in the Foellinger Great Hall was very large in number, more than I have ever seen for a concert by the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

The number of performers on the Foellinger Great Hall stage was as high as any concert I have attended in the past. And aside from the throngs on the stage, part of the balcony was set aside for the Central Illinois Children's Chorus. All these musical legions were there to perform Britten's massive and complex 1962 "War Requiem."

In 1958, Britten was asked to provide a choral work to be performed at the consecration of the new St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry, England. The previous cathedral, which dated back to the 14th century, had been destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1940. Britten, a man of strong pacifist convictions, had chosen not to serve in World War II. Indeed, from 1939 to 1942, he had been with his partner Peter Pears in the United States. Upon their return to Britain in 1942, Britten and Pears were given conscientious objector status.

In planning this work, Britten made a fundamental choice that ended up as a stroke of genius. He would set the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, in Latin, and juxtapose the familiar, general statements about death, judgment and possible salvation of the just with poems by Wilfrid Owen (1893-1918), who had served on the Western Front in World War I and was killed in action on Nov. 4, one week before the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice.

The Owen poems serve as a contrast to the liturgical text, and in some cases the Owen poems are in opposition to the promised salvation and resurrection of the just in the Latin text. But aside from this, the Owen poems give agonized personal impact to the brutal reality of life and death in battle. The final Owen poem, "Strange Meeting," provides in the reconciliation and mutual sympathy of a British soldier and a dead German soldier a dramatically superb climax and ending to this mighty work.

This Britten work is unusually complicated in the division of the performers into separate units that must be kept in balance over a long period of time. The UI Symphony Orchestra, Donald S. Schleicher director, was skillfully conducted by Andrew Megill, the Director of Choral Activities at UIUC. The student members of the orchestra were joined by assisting musicians. The orchestra members performed excellently, both in the main ensemble as well as in the chamber group at the side of the stage, which accompanied the tenor and baritone soloists who sang the texts of the Owen poems. This 13-member ensemble included the members of the Jupiter Quartet and Bernhard Scully, horn.

The very large chorus on stage included members of the UI Chamber Singers and UI Oratorio Society, both directed by Megill, and the UI Women's Glee Club, Andrea Solya, director, as well as the UI Varsity Men's Glee Club, Michael Schmidt, director. In the balcony, the Central Illinois Children's Chorus, whose director is Solya, was conducted by Fernando Salvar-Ruiz.

My tally, based on the list of performers in the program, was that there were 272 choristers and 96 instrumentalists involved, for a grand total of 368.

All of these choruses performed magnificently, and the Children's Chorus especially offered a touching note of innocence in contrast to the sometimes grim subjects treated by the main stage performers.

Soprano soloist Courtenay Budd, seated up amid the choruses, sang with admirable authority passages of the Latin text. The Owen poems were sung with vibrant intensity by Sumner Thompson, tenor, and David Newman, baritone, and their final duet in the poem "Strange Meeting" was a breathtaking moment of emotional release.

The audience erupted in applause at the end of this 85-minute performance, with strong cheers for the Children's Chorus and at the entry onstage of the various choral directors.

With a final note of congratulations to all who took part, let me also note the superb work of director Megill in molding the various forces into this successful performance. This was a deeply moving and satisfying end to the 2017-18 season.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.