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A cry to the heavens

The L.A. Phil rallies a big turnout to make Britten's statement in his 'War Requiem.'

January 24, 2008|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

In a season when Hollywood and independent filmmakers have rediscovered the antiwar film, Benjamin Britten's 1962 "War Requiem" may trump all their efforts.

"Its message is very loud and clear," says New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel, who's in town to conduct performances of Britten's bitter work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic tonight through Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He will lead it again in June as part of his final season with his home orchestra.

"The carnage brought about by conflict resulting in war is too horrendous to consider, and yet human beings are almost incapable of learning anything from the mistakes we made in the past and go on and on repeating them."

As in Iraq?

"I'm not going to go into politics," the conductor, 77, said during a break in an orchestra rehearsal Tuesday. "I'm a musician, not a politician. But one needs to apply logic to every situation. The decision to go into Iraq was made by a human being, and it is up to people to sort out whether or not it was right. To my mind, there's nothing divine about someone who's been elected to public office, and if he made a mistake, then he should be accountable."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, January 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
'War Requiem': An article in Thursday's Calendar section about a Los Angeles Philharmonic presentation of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" said that Lorin Maazel would conduct the New York Philharmonic in the work in June as part of his final season as music director of the orchestra. Those performances are scheduled for June 2009, near the end of his final season.

From the front lines

Britten's mammoth work owes much of its power to the massed forces of its musicians and singers -- about 250 will participate in the Disney Hall performances. But what makes it especially piercing is a combination of the traditional Latin Requiem text with nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a British officer who was machine-gunned to death a week before the armistice that ended World War I in November 1918. Owen was 25.

His poems, published posthumously, are bitter attacks on the cruelty and waste of war coupled with a deep pity for its victims. A lifelong pacifist, Britten responded strongly to these verses and placed one of them, "Strange Meeting," climactically in the final movement of the work.

"It's a very simple story of two people who meet on the battlefield, kill one another and meet again in limbo," Maazel, who last conducted the Philharmonic in 1973, said of the poem in an earlier interview. "They have given their lives, they're not quite sure why, and they don't even question why it is that they died. It's too late to question. They've lost their lives. But it's not too late for us to question."

Commissioned for ceremonies surrounding the reconsecration of a cathedral in Coventry, England, that had been destroyed in a Nazi air raid in 1940, the "War Requiem" is divided into three levels. A tenor and a baritone soloist sing Owen's poems, accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra. A soprano soloist and an adult choir -- here the Los Angeles Master Chorale -- sing the traditional Latin Mass, accompanied by a large orchestra.

Finally, there is a choir of children -- the Los Angeles Children's Chorus -- who are innocent and pure but remote from the human suffering.

"They just plow on as children do," Maazel said. "They're not quite sure what the text they're singing is all about -- and that's OK. But they're the future. These are the young people we're trying to protect by taking measures to see to it that what was done to their elders will not be done to them."

Britten called for a chorus of boys' voices, but here, as often elsewhere, the chorus will be mixed.

"This was requested by maestro Maazel," said Anne Tomlinson, director of the children's chorus. "He prefers the sound of a mixed ensemble."

Tomlinson acknowledged that the work has a "depth of emotional content which is somewhat unique for children's voices." But she said she had endeavored to prepare the 50 youngsters "not only to sing beautifully but to sing in a way that truly communicates the emotions that the texts carry."

For Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the "War Requiem" is a work in which "every bar seems to convey truth."

"Because of its very strong antiwar statement and its strong sense of compassion, it's a very emotional experience to work on the piece," Gershon said. "Ostensibly the chorus' role is more objective than the soloists singing the Wilfred Owen poems -- the chorus is given straight Latin -- but it's so colored by this overwhelming sense of Britten's own personal loss, the many friends he lost in the Second World War and his own pacifism.

"Because he took this very unpopular and difficult position in World War II, that adds an incredible emotional intensity to the work. You feel there's this commitment and this sense of seeing very clear-eyed through incredibly complex times and situations."

A sharing of command

The work also calls for two conductors -- one for the large orchestra and one for the chamber orchestra -- although there have been performances under the leadership of a single person.

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