It’s the month of War Requiem in Washington, where two major organizations feted Benjamin Britten’s centenary with a piece that some have called his magnum opus. I had a couple of chances to talk about the piece in the Washington Post, first in a feature for the Sunday Arts section, and then in my review of the Washington Chorus performance a couple of days later (in which I tried not to repeat the earlier story, forgetting that a number of readers would not have seen the earlier story). So when it came time to review the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance, I was casting about for ways to spare readers hearing me yet again on the same subject, and ways I could avoid repeating myself. My husband, Greg Sandow, is a respected critic, composer and consultant who’s been writing about music in major publications for years, and since he and I have quite different takes on the piece, we had the idea of writing a joint review as a point-counterpoint debate.
To me, this approach is a tangible reminder of how greatly reviews are enhanced by the presence of different points of view. I learn a lot from people who have other opinions, even if they don’t change my mind. And we would both welcome more of them. We would love to hear your thoughts on the War Requiem: the piece itself, the performances in the Washington area, or various recordings and other encounters you’ve had over the years. Post away. We’ll be checking back in through the week and adding to this post with additions and comments of our own.
Above: A complete 1992 performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by John Eliot Gardiner at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. We’d like to hear your thoughts about the piece.
Edited to add: Greg Sandow has added a few thoughts about the Washington Chorus performance, and other comments, in the Comments thread below. Other commenters have weighed in with their own memories and experiences, and in response to one mention of the NSO performance under Rostropovich, I added the Paul Hume review from the Washington Post from 1979.
We’ve also appreciated hearing directly from many of you. One letter, in particular, deserves to be seen in full; it’s one of my favorite readers’ letters ever. I reproduce it below, without further comment.
November 19, 2013
Dear Ms. Midgette and Mr. Sandow,
Thank you for writing your differing views of the piece and the recent performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
We are an eighth grade class at the Gilman Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland who had the pleasure of attending the BSO performance Thursday night.
Ms. Midgette, while we appreciate your view, we tend to agree more with Mr. Sandow. We found the piece to be very moving. It made us appreciate how those soldiers must have felt. We studied the piece for about 6 weeks before we went to hear it live and grew to appreciate how the music just paints a picture of the words (for example, "Bugles sang..." ).
In Offertorium, when tenor and baritone sing and there is a transition and a darkening after we realize that Isaac (representing the young soldiers of Europe) is not going to be spared, we were very disturbed and moved by the ferocious music and the anger expressed by the tenor.
We really believe that Mr. Britten was able to emphasize the suffering of the soldiers and, because of the repeated use of the tritone, the unsettled feeling was perfectly transmitted by the BSO and the conductor.
Lastly, one of our friends and fellow eighth grade student, Barrett Crawford, sang in the Peabody Children's Chorus and it was interesting to see someone we knew involved in the large performing group.
We enjoyed reading your column. It has helped us continue our discussions of this piece.
Mrs. Beckman's eighth grade music class