Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Simon Pauly / November 15, 2013)

The Baltimore Symphony has presented an epic work every few seasons since Marin Alsop started her tenure as music director in 2007, works that seem to bring out the best in her and the orchestra. Such was the case with Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" and Arthur Honegger's "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher."

You can add to that list Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," presented Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, where it will be repeated Friday before moving to Strathmore on Saturday.

This nearly 90-minute score for two orchestras, two choruses and three soloists fuses searing texts by World War I poet Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead. The result is a sobering rebuke to humankind's stubborn habit of killing for God and country, and to clerics and politicians who "bawl allegiance to the state" while giving their blessings to wars they never have to fight themselves.

For all of the anger here, all of the vivid evocation of those maimed and killed, of values and illusions shattered, the piece ultimately underlines the ageless prayer, "Grant them eternal rest." The music also asks us to think and re-think the whole dreadful business of war. This is very much a requiem for the living as well as the dead.

There were moments on Thursday that didn't sound fully settled, and moments when Alsop seemed focused more tightly on notes than the deepness behind them. My guess is the remaining performances will feel more confident and spontaneous.

That said, this encounter still proved satisfying and affecting. Alsop was especially persuasive in shaping the explosive passages, such as the Sanctus. And her pacing of the finale ensured terrific tension and radiant release.

The conductor's ear for instrumental detail meant that some of the subtlest sounds in the score, such as the faint percussion at the start of the "Libera me," registered beautifully. And she took advantage of the University of Maryland Concert Choir's ability to sing pianissimo, encouraging exquisite shading of the healing, closing chords in the Kyrie and elsewhere.

Overall, the BSO, both the main orchestra and the small group of players who formed a chamber orchestra on one side of the stage, sounded disciplined and sensitive.

In addition to the well-balanced voices of the admirable UM chorus (Edward Maclary, director), there were sweet, smooth sounds from the Peabody Children's Chorus, positioned in a balcony above the stage and separately conducted by its director, Doreen Falby.

Soprano Tamara Wilson's gleaming, easily soaring tone and ardent phrasing gave the Latin texts an extra burst of compelling power. 

Most of the emotional weight in the "War Requiem" comes from the Owen verses, assigned to tenor and baritone soloists. The BSO was fortunate to engage two exceptional vocal artists who learned the piece for these performances and articulated every word with admirable clarity.

Tenor Nicholas Phan sang with a poignant, plangent tone as he communicated the haunted and haunting imagery of the poems. "Move him into the sun" was delivered with particular beauty. McKinny likewise poured out a warm sound and phrased with remarkable nuance, achieving profound results in the finale.  

In the "So Abram rose" duet, the two men sang with mesmerizing tenderness at the line "When lo, an angel called him out of heaven." They produced another ethereal sound at the end of the work for the lyrical mantra "Let us sleep now" that reduces the enormity of war to its essence -- lives lost before their time.