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In a Peace-Loving Way, 'War Requiem' Completes L.A.'s Battle of Britten


There is no official Benjamin Britten festival at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The principal tenants, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera, are not that close. And more's the pity, because, by an extraordinary coincidence, one has happened anyway; with a little cooperation and foresight, much might have been made of it.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Opera offered a strong realization of Britten's "Peter Grimes." On Thursday, the Philharmonic responded with a powerful performance of the "War Requiem." Today, it will be possible to attend repeat performances of both works within hours of each other in the same hall.

"Grimes" and the "War Requiem" were the two signal points in Britten's career. The opera, which was written for the reopening of Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1945, was the work that made him the central figure in English music. The "War Requiem" was premiered in 1961 at the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by a German air raid in 1940, and the premiere was a self-consciously international event that assured Britten a position as a major international figure.

But what is most striking about hearing these two works back to back in impressive performances that received standing ovations is what a sheer magician Britten was. Both works win over audiences with disturbing subjects that are positively unpopular with the vast majority of those who listen and avidly respond to the music. In the opera, Britten provokes a disquieting sympathy for (or, at least understanding of) an outsider who happens also to abuse children.

The "War Requiem" is an anthem not just to peace but to a degree of deep-felt pacifism that led Britten to passive resistance in World War II--indeed, even "Grimes" came about because of Britten's pacifism, since he conceived it in California, where he spent the summer of 1941 escaping European hostilities.

Twenty years later, when Britten wrote the "War Requiem," the Cold War was at its warmest--1961 was the year of the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall. So as a symbol of cooperation, the composer intended the work--which uses large instrumental forces, chorus and boys' choir--for three vocal soloists representing antagonistic nations: a British tenor (Peter Pears), Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya, whom the Soviets refused to allow to sing at the premiere) and German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). That is not a recipe necessary to follow any longer but the Philharmonic respected it.

Otherwise, Britten steered clear of contemporary politics. He asserted a more universal antiwar message through the insertion of World War I poems by Wilfred Owen into the standard Requiem Mass liturgical text. Never himself one to march in lock-step with society, Britten treated these poems as subversive commentary; he even gave them their own accompaniment from a small chamber orchestra that is set apart from the main band. Owen's somber, potent imagery of dying youth becomes, at its most troubling, comfort-shattering intrusions upon churchly grace.

In common with "Grimes" is the sheer theatricality of the "War Requiem," which is notably influenced by Verdi's operatic Requiem. And the Philharmonic's performance is an arrestingly dramatic one. The conductor, Antonio Pappano, who will become music director of the Royal Opera in London in 2002, is a superbly theatrical conductor and a great marshal of large forces. The Philharmonic responded with the almost unbearably convincing combination of overwhelming aggression and an eerie, subtle purity of sound. The chamber orchestra, composed of the first desk players, made all the more melancholy and otherworldly an impression by its stunning focus on line and pitch.

Among the soloists, all performing here for the first time, Ian Bostridge was the most striking. Willowy thin and singularly boyish-looking, the British tenor is quickly developing a well-deserved cult following as a mysterious singer. It's been said that he seems to disappear into music, and the implication of a physical reality in every word and note is indeed spellbinding. The other soloists are more conventional, but both Elena Zelenskaya (from Azerbaijan) and Thomas Mohr (from Germany) proved effectively intense.

Pappano brought out the best from everyone, and that included the Los Angeles Master Chorale; its singing conveyed great purpose. Britten asked that the boys' choir be physically apart from the stage for hauntingly heavenly effect, but it was a small miscalculation placing the Paulist Boy Choristers offstage altogether. Behind the scenes they made too small an impact, but it was a lovely impact nonetheless.

As with "Grimes," an uncommonly illuminating preconcert talk by one of the world's most noted Britten authorities, Philip Brett, completes the evening, and his valuable presence at both events helps to create at least a whiff of a festival atmosphere.

* "War Requiem" repeats tonight, at 8 , and Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $10-$70, (323) 850-2000.

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