Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Gianandrea Noseda, commemorated the centenary of the end of World War I with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” The Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, soprano Karina Flores, tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Matthias Goerne were their partners in this solemnity. I use the word advisedly because, magnificent though the performance was, it exceeded the purely musical.
First, some backstory: On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, 515 German planes dropped 500 tons of bombs on the city of Coventry in central England. In addition to inflicting well over a thousand casualties, the raid virtually destroyed the city’s medieval heart, including the 14th-century St. Michael’s Cathedral. Britten composed his “War Requiem” for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built next to the ruins of the old. Into the fabric of the traditional Latin Mass for the dead, Britten interwove verses by the poet Wilfred Owen, a British officer killed just days before the end of World War I.
Most impressive Thursday was the unwavering sensitivity of this huge company of musicians to Noseda’s every movement. He is a conductor who brings his wide experience in the opera house to the concert platform. He elicited from Choral Arts and the Children’s Chorus a performance that was rhythmically precise, infinitely varied in texture and color, and ranged from the barely audible to an all but overwhelmingly robust sound.
It was the most moving choral singing I have heard in a quarter-century’s residence in Washington. The orchestra, the large main ensemble and a smaller chamber ensemble that accompanied the male soloists acquitted themselves magnificently in this challenging score. Bostridge and Goerne’s singing of Owen’s poetry bought a disarming intimacy to the grand spectacle of war’s horror and pathos.
The performance will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m.