Toronto Symphony Remembers With A Moving Tribute To The Wastes Of War

Stephan Bonfield, ludwig Van Toronto

Britten’s War Requiem: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Children’s Chorus, and soloists. Bramwell Tovey, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall. Nov, 8. Repeats Nov. 10.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented its annual Remembrance Day concert Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall and, as always befits these solemn occasions, gave another moving tribute to those lost in a century of war and senseless conflicts.

Last year it was Jeffrey Ryan’s immensely successful and evocative Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, but its model might well have been Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a pacifist’s prime exponent of music mourning the casualties of young lives lost amid the senseless wastes of war.

Thus, with this year being the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the Great War, it was an excellent choice to perform Britten’s masterful six-movement setting of the traditional Latin Requiem text and Wilfred Owen’s eight poems that Britten used to commemorate the man who died one week before the official armistice took effect.

Owen’s writings, by his own admission, were less concerned with inherent poetic quality (they are brilliant regardless) and were rather more reflective about the war itself.  Owen superimposed his own deeply personal faith upon his psychologically harrowing experiences, and his extant writings inspired Britten’s polished and eruptive score, abounding with sumptuous depictions of Owen’s inner state as proxy for our collective horrified response to war’s ludicrous devastations.

From the angular and harrowing Dies Irae to the stirring Sanctus, or especially the sparse poetic lines cast in beautiful elegiac incantation (beautifully sung by tenor Toby Spence), the Requiem commands respect for its astonishing breadth of sheer compositional virtuosity and copious textual meanings.  The work presents a chance for orchestras to show a collective command for complex musical textures.

In light of this, nothing was left to chance under the direction of Bramwell Tovey, who coerced supreme efforts from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (under new interim director David Fallis) and the Toronto Children’s Chorus, consummately conducted by Elise Bradley, three soloists (a powerful, full-voiced soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, tenor Toby Spence, baritone Russell Braun), a small chamber orchestra of ten instrumentalists and the rest of the 250 or more performers who gave their all.  Tovey was brilliant again and his labours succeeded in producing a grand albeit often unnuanced sound. The audience responded with a standing ovation and accolades at the end of the work, and many audience members appeared moved by what they had heard, shrugging off the longer-than-usual tempi and enjoying each movement for what it had to offer.

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