TSO’s anti-war performance - Metro US

TSO’s anti-war performance

Classical music definitely has its political side; Palestrina’s 16th century masses and Beethoven’s 19th century symphonies often alluded to how leaders used or abused their power.

And for the English-speaking world, the definitive anti-war score is Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform on Remembrance Day.

Conductor Peter Oundjian explains what makes this 1962 orchestral work (with choirs and soloists) a classical staple.

“Dramatically, it’s very close to opera, like Verdi’s requiem,” says Oundjian, “except it’s packed with irony. The music is largely governed by the tritone, which is the devil’s interval.”

Tritones (the flat fifth, or augmented fourth) are sensual yet directionless, so in tonal music tritones are like anti-music, threatening to undermine the score’s lyric beauty. This irony is reinforced by the words of Wilfred Owen, an English officer who wrote bitter brilliant poems in the trenches during the First World War, where he died.

But for all its ironic spite, the War Requiem is an exquisite, moving work, with music sensitively attuned to the anger and the sadness of the libretto. In it, authority on different levels is challenged outright.

“The music and the poems are steeped in disappointment in religious values,” says Oundjian. “The poem about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in particular shows an inhumane compliance.”

An undercurrent of wickedness flits throughout the 90 minute score, reappearing as tritones and of course in Owen’s words, as set beside the music’s traditional requiem texts. The overall effect is haunting, diverse in its sublime gorgeousness and never shrill.

“The piece is conceived on three levels,” explains Oundjian, “with the liturgical requiem is formally laid out in a classical requiem setting, for solo soprano, adult choir and orchestra. The poems of Owen juxtapose liturgy with a great human tragedy, sung by solo tenor and baritone, and supported by a separate chamber orchestra. A third level, performed by harmonium and boy’s choir, signify the afterlife.”

This amounts to a huge production with enormous range. It never hammers too hard on any single point.

See it live

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem will be performed Wednesday and Thursday at Roy Thomson Hall.

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