PICK! ASR Music ~~ Silence Graces Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”

By Jeff Dunn

Euripides was proved right at Davies Hall Thursday night, May 18: that silence is the best response to true wisdom. For 90 minutes, the nearly filled auditorium was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it. A clapping of one hand. And after the last chord, another 35 seconds of utter noiselessness. Shock, prayer, mourning for our human condition? Then, three long curtain calls amid a somber standing ovation. How could it be else, in the face of a magnificent performance of a 20th-century milestone in music that is utterly relevant today?

Benjamin Britten

The enormous work calls for three soloists, two choruses, two orchestras, and an organ, each of which are associated with different aspects of the causes and meanings of death and war. The mixed San Francisco Symphony chorus, soprano solo and full orchestra and proclaimed the Requiem texts of the Latin Mass, with sin as the cause of the Day of Wrath and salvation as the antidote.

…I urge readers to experience the immeasurable empathy of the War Requiem…

Baritone and tenor soloists, accompanied by a chamber orchestra and singing the poetry of Wilfred Owen, portrayed warring soldiers on opposite sides, yet on the same side with regard to ironic and often bitter critiques of war and its abnegation of pacifistic Christianity. From a distant balcony at the rear, the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, accompanied almost solely by organ, occasionally chanted the more innocently hopeful verses from the liturgy.

All of eight intertwined elements above were meshed in near-perfect combination by conductor Philippe Jordan. The originally scheduled baritone, Iain Paterson, had to withdraw due to unexplained visa issues, but his replacement, the equally experienced Brian Mulligan, added a gorgeous Wotan-like gravitas to his superior performance. Tenor Ian Bostridge filled the hall with his perfectly attuned instrument, but even more thrilling, to patrons in nearer rows, were his exquisite, masterfully varied, and often wrenching facial expressions.

I will never forget his stabbing rendition of the following Owen lines at the end of the Dies Irae movement:

Was it for this [war and death] that the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous, fatuous sunbeams toil.
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Soprano Jennifer Holloway did a fine job in an angelically silvery dress from the chorus benches in the rear. Conceptually, her position makes sense, considering the far remove the Sixth Commandment has from the battlefields, but Britten’s wonderful music for her needs to be heard at equal volume as the other two soloists, especially in the Lacrymosa section.

In terms of Jordan’s tempo choices, all were acceptable to my taste, if slightly on the slow side. Also, I wish he had given more weight to the snare drum crescendo in the media-prescient setting of the words “The scribes on all the people shove/And bawl allegiance to the state.”

Silence is not the best response to false wisdom, so I must report Harold Schonberg’s uncompassionate NY Times review of the War Requiem at its U.S. premiere in 1963:

“It may turn out that “A War Requiem” will not, in the long run, have staying power because of a certain obviousness. The effects are a little too heart-on-sleeve, the sorrow is a little too sorrowful, the melodic content a little calculated.”

I urge readers to experience the immeasurable empathy of the War Requiem and consider, in thoughtful silence, where we are headed as a species.


Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionBritten's "War Requiem"
Producing CompanySan Francisco Symphony
Production DatesThrough May 20th
Production AddressDavies Symphony Hall 201 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!