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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ozawa & Britten War Requiem

Seiji Ozawa, who's been suffering from esophageal cancer, has returned to the podium for some concerts with his Saito Kinen Orchestra. Below, the review in the NY Times.

I conducted the War Requiem in 1987 at PLU (see my blog post, here), which was an absolutely great experience. Some of my singers then had the fantastic and emotional experience the next year of a choir tour to England, where we gave a concert at Coventry Cathedral, where the work was premiered. A fabulous experience--both of them!




December 19, 2010

Adding Another Layer to ‘War Requiem’ Story

Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” completed in 1962 for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been bombed out by the Germans and rebuilt, was the great internationalist statement of a pacifist. To drive the point home in the first performance Britten wanted vocal soloists from Britain (Peter Pears), Germany (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and the Soviet Union (Galina Vishnevskaya, who, barred from traveling to England, had to be replaced by the British soprano Heather Harper).

As an idealist force, if that is not an oxymoron, the work still packs a punch. It certainly did in a 2002 performance conducted by Britten’s friend (and Ms. Vishnevskaya’s husband) Mstislav Rostropovich in Peenemünde, Germany — at a plant used in Nazi times to develop the dreaded V-2 rocket, now a museum — with an international cast and an audience including Mikhail Gorbachev and other dignitaries.

The work has also afforded a platform for intensely personal statements, as when the great humanist conductor Robert Shaw put the baritone Benjamin Luxon forward in a 1994 presentation at Carnegie Hall, exquisitely prepared in a weeklong choral workshop, knowing full well that Mr. Luxon was almost deaf and prone to error. The performance proved a deeply moving triumph for both, as well as for Britten.

And on Saturday evening, in the last of three concerts by the Saito Kinen Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Seiji Ozawa touched both the internationalist and the personal chords. In the first two concerts, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Ozawa, mostly recovered from surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer early in the year but still suffering acutely from sciatica, conducted only half of each.

Here he led the whole 85-minute “War Requiem,” including the segments incorporating Wilfred Owen’s poetry and scored for chamber orchestra, typically handled by a second conductor. He worked seated much of the time, looking less vigorous than he had earlier in the week despite his obvious frailty, and an intermission was added to help conserve his energy.

“I personally do not care for political pieces,” Mr. Ozawa wrote in program notes, but he was introduced to the “War Requiem” by a Rostropovich performance in 1979, and he has obviously internalized the work. He conducted from memory, as usual, with complete command and a loving attention to detail and nuance.

His current affection for the piece stems in part from its role in his physical recovery, he said in an interview in September. Having led most of the same forces in the work at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto in 2009, he set about restudying it.

“I had so much time, and I couldn’t do anything else, and music became more and more important,” he said. “Maybe the piece was a little too heavy, but I felt so happy to study and have time.”

The international representation was assured by the very nature of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which mingles Japanese and Japanese-American performers (especially the string players) with Westerners. The Japanese choruses — the SKF Matsumoto Choir and Children’s Choir and the Ritsuyukai Choir — performed superbly, with powerful fortissimos and breathtaking pianissimos, and they articulated the Latin texts admirably.

The vocal soloists — Christine Goerke, a penetrating soprano who sometimes shaded flat; Anthony Dean Griffey, a touchingly communicative tenor; and Matthias Goerne, initially remote but ultimately a hauntingly involved baritone — were strong and well matched. And the orchestra shone again, with those remarkable strings upholding their lofty standard and the brasses — after a few early hitches — improving on their previous performances, in blazing climaxes.

With an obvious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration Mr. Ozawa generously shared the clamorous ovation from an audience that seemed to have taken in the work’s — and the performance’s — many messages.

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