Culture Magazine

Concert Review: The Phone That Lost the War

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plays the War Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The Phone That Lost the War

Conductor Robert Spano.
Photo by Angela Moriss for

Last night's performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under music director Robert Spano will be remembered--not for the superb caliber of the well-prepared chorus, orchestra and soloists, and not for the power and sweep of Banjamin Britten's largest choral work.
Rather, will be remembered because once again, a phone went off at a crucial moment.
The offending electronic device chose to make itself heard at the worst possible time, ringing brassily in the middle of the Libera Me, the climactic and final section of the Requiem. In this work (written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1961) Britten combined the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead with the poetry of World War I veteran Wilfred Owen. Tenor and baritone share a duet, in the role of two soldiers meeting on the battlefield--with one of them speaking from beyond the grave.
The phone rang in pregnant pause that comes at the end of the baritone's aria, and just before the voices join in the descending phrase "Let us sleep now," echoing the Requesciat in pace that concludes the work. Mr. Spano, to his credit stood stock still, putting one hand on the rail of his conductor's rostrum to indicate the work would not continue until the device was silenced. It was, and the work finished.
The sounding of the phone did not eclipse the performance that had gone before. Indeed the Atlanta orchestra and more importantly, its famous chorus were in absolutely top form. Mr. Spano took a slow, measured approach to the opening movement that only increased its sense of funereal dread.
When the forces switched (Britten set the poems to be accompanied not by the full orchestra but by a chamber-sized mini-orchestra located close to the conductor) the effect was both thrilling and transparent. A third ensemble: the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and a portative organ, provided scope to Britten's vision and a reminder that war's cost is not restricted to the battlefield.
The chugging intensity of the Dies Irae was interrupted again by the Owen poems, reflecting and echoing the ideas that were expressed in the Latin text. Tenor Thomas Cooley, a late substitute for the indisposed Anthony Dean Griffey, proved an able singer, with a sweet, rounded tone that turned earnest when placed under pressure. This was particularly noticeable in the Agnus Dei where his account of the Crucifixion carried great emotional weight.
The Liber scriptus brought soprano Evalina Dobrachevna to the fore. Her searing instrument was one of the most impressive aspects of this performance, riding over the choppy waves of chorus and orchestration and staying gloriously on course. Ms. Dobrachevna's performance in the latter movements enlivened and empowered choral passages of this work, providing a very human plea against the massed judgment of God in the Libera Me.
Baritone Stephen Powell was not a substitute, but he proved less than ideal for his part. Britten specified a German singer for this role to underline the resolution of conflict between opposite sides of the war, but he tried to color his phrases with a slightly Germanic diction. This meant that some of his text came across as unintelligible, forcing the audience to follow closely with their librettos. His account of the un-dead soldier in the last movement was searing and close to the bone.
It would have been better if the phone hadn't gone off.

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