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Kalmar touch yields worthy `War Requiem'

Given the mess in Iraq and the lingering horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, performances of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" are more timely and relevant than ever.

One of the choral masterpieces of the last century, the "War Requiem" was composed for the 1962 dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, rebuilt alongside the bombed-out ruins of the old. Britten, a lifelong pacifist, interleaved the traditional Latin text with settings of poems by Wilfred Owen as a condemnation of the brutality and futility of any war.

Under the right performance conditions, Britten's music can stir the soul with its sheer emotional power, its masterful balance of consolation and rage. Those conditions were impressively achieved Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, where Carlos Kalmar led the combined forces of the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, three other choruses and three vocal soloists in a deeply moving account of the "War Requiem."

Britten consciously designed the piece as an act of reconciliation, requesting that the solo parts be sung by citizens of three combatant nations of the World War II: England, Germany and Russia. That was how Mstislav Rostropovich presented it in 2002 when he led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the most recent downtown performances. Those performances were worthy but lacked a commanding podium presence to hold the long line taut and to shape the myriad details.

No such problem with Kalmar. The conductor obviously feels this music in a deeply personal way. He asked much of his alert orchestra and the splendidly prepared (by Christopher Bell) choral contingent and vanquished most of the technical and musical difficulties despite limited rehearsal. Covering themselves with glory were the National Collegiate Chorale of Scotland, Bell's apprentice chorale of local university students and the Chicago Children's Choir, their sound floating in ethereally from offstage.

Visa problems kept one of Kalmar's intended soloists, Russian soprano Elena Prokina, from entering the U.S. Thus he wound up fielding an entirely North American team of soloists, and a strong one at that: soprano Erin Marie Wall, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Nathan Gunn.

The way Britten deploys these solo voices is fascinating. The traditional texts are given to the soprano and chorus, who sing of judgment and salvation. The bitter, ironic Owen poems are taken by the male soloists, who evoke the horrors of the battlefield before twining voices in the sublime final pages ("Let us sleep now"). This is one of the great cathartic moments in all of music, when the soft light of peace and eternal rest settles like a balm on all that has gone before.

Wall was superb in the hieratic soprano part, her voice absolutely steady, rich in color and expressive nuance, capped off with gleaming high notes that had none of the squally unpleasantness of Galina Vishnevskaya's on Britten's recording. Also tremendous in impact was Griffey, whose clean, cutting, thrusting tenor seemed to fill his entire being and the entire park as well. He fully inhabited the words and their rhetorical frame, showing a degree of dramatic incisiveness one wanted more of from Gunn's warmly and lyrically sung performance.

The performance was to be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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