Arts & Events

Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra Celebrate Their 50th Anniversary with Benjamin Britten’s WAR REQUIEM

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 10, 2016 - 12:12:00 PM

It’s hard to believe the Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra has been around for 50 years, and with only three music directors in all that time. Yet it’s true; and they celebrated their 50th anniversary on the weekend of June 3-5 with three inspired performances at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Composed by Britten in the early 1960s, his War Requiem was commissioned by England’s Coventry Cathedral Festival to consecrate the new cathedral that replaced the old medieval one bombed to rubble by the Nazis in mid-November 1940. Britten, an ardent anti-war pacifist, had long admired the terse, moving poems written from the battlefield during World War I by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the armistice was signed that ended World War I. Thus, when asked in 1960 to compose a work for Coventry, Britten opted to weave together some of Wilfred Owen’s texts and the old Latin Mass, thereby combining old and new, ancient and modern, just as the new Coventry Cathedral combined architectural elements of the old medieval cathedral now in ruins and the strikingly new cathedral which one enters through the ruins of the old. 

Benjamin Britten, of course, was a consummate opera composer, and his War Requiem is indeed quite operatic in the same way that Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem is operatic. Britten scored his War Requiem for three vocal soloists, a large orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra (which accompanies the soloists), a huge chorus, and a small girls’ choir (here performed by the San Francisco Girls Chorus). Out of these massed forces, BCCO’s Music Director Ming Luke forged an intensely committed performing ensemble, whose soloists were tenor Brian Thorsett, baritone Efraín Solis, and soprano Carrie Hennessey. 

Britten’s War Requiem begins with bells tolling. The hushed chorus then sings “Requiem aeternam,” and the girls’ choir sings a hymn of praise to God. Soon the tenor sings the first of Wilfred Owen’s poems included in this work. Brian Thorsett, like all three of the soloists, sings in English, while the chorus and girls’ choir sing in Latin. In Owen’s text, one asks, “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Right from the outset, a bitter anti-war tone is set. But tenor Brian Thorsett did not sing these lines in anger. Rather, his limpid tenor voice evoked immense sadness, as it did throughout most of this inspiring work. The Dies Irae of the Latin Mass followed and was traditional in tone, full of horns trumpeting the coming of Judgment Day. Then baritone Efraín Solis sang another of the poems by Owen, this one containing the arresting line, “The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.” Next to enter was Carrie Hennessey, whose dark-toned soprano voice evoked the book by which men will be judged. In the closing verses, her voice rose to clear, bright heights above the full chorus as they sang “Rex tremendae, magitatis.” Then Brian Thorsett and Efraín Solis teamed up to sing of a soldier’s casual, laughing intimacy with Death, when they fight … “for flags.” (A sad, soft ironic note here.) A bit later, the baritone returns to evoke the big cannon aiming at the heavens. We may need it, he sings, but when it has spat out its curse, then may God in turn curse it and “cut it from our soul.” Suddenly, the refrains of the Latin Dies irae return, followed by a most tender poem by Wilfred Owen in which tenor Brian Thorsett sang movingly of the still-warm body of a newly killed comrade. What’s the point of it all?, he seems to ask, with infinite sadness. 

After a brief Offertorium sung by the girls’ choir and the full chorus, the Old Testament tale of Abraham and his son Isaac is introduced. Baritone and tenor, Efraín Solis and Brian Thorsett, sing Wilfred Owen’s reworking of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and of how an angel appeared and instructed Abraham to kill a ram instead. Yet this poem by Wilfred Owen doesn’t conclude with an animal sacrifice instead of a human one. Instead, Abraham kills his son Isaac “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Here we find Owen – and Britten – at their most bitter anti-war frames of mind, as together they situate the killing instinct in the Old Testament itself, and in the minds of men from ancient times to the present. 

After intermission, the BCCO returned as bells tolled again and soprano and chorus sang the Latin Sanctus. The baritone Efrain Solis sang another of Owens’ poems, this one asking if ‘life shall renew these bodies.” The answer is no. Even Mother Earth speaks sadly of her ancient scars and endless tears. Then interspersed in the Agnus Dei section of the Latin Mass, tenor Brian Thorsett sings Owen’s texts accusing priests and scribes with complicity in the patriotic massacres. “But they who love the greater love,” he softly concludes, “lay down their life; they do not hate.” Then, amidst drums that roll like distant thunder, the chorus and soprano sing the Libera me section of the Latin Mass, Carrie Hennessey’s voice again soaring above the full chorus.  

In the final Wilfred Owen poem included in Britten’s War Requiem, one entitled “Strange Meeting,” two enemy soldiers encounter one another in the trenches, one dying and the other barely escaping with his life, though for how long is unclear. They address one another respectfully, sadly. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” says the dying soldier. They speak of the pity of war. If they could, they agree, they’d wash all bodies clean and heal them. But they can’t. ‘Let us sleep now …” they say, and they repeat these words over and over, as the girls’ choir, chorus and soprano all ask God to grant the dead eternal life in Heaven. Thus ends Benjamin Britten’s intensely moving War Requiem, here given heartfelt performance by the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra under the direction of Ming Luke.