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Leshnoff's dark but hopeful 'Requiem'

The Baltimore Sun

To commemorate in music the human toll of war, any war, is a daunting prospect, involving weighty questions of text and tone, scope and scale.

Benjamin Britten's attempt is the best known. He took the massive approach in 1961 with his War Requiem for soloists, multiple choruses and orchestra. It's steeped in references to the 20th century's two world conflicts, but timeless and place-less in its relevance, unmistakable in its anti-war mood.

Jonathan Leshnoff followed a much more compact path in creating his Requiem for the Fallen, premiered Wednesday night by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Handel Choir of Baltimore in a welcome collaboration at Goucher College's Kraushaar College (just one performance, unfortunately). It lasts a fraction of Britten's - about 17 minutes, vs. nearly 90 - and requires modest forces.

Leshnoff's own concerns about the Iraq war, its costs in civilian and military lives, inform the work. But there are no direct allusions to today's headlines, no heavy political messages. This is, as the title says, a tribute to all those claimed by war, any war.

Of course, there are dark moments. The opening plea for the granting of eternal rest is an agitated shout, rather than supplication, and two poems by Walt Whitman confront the listener with disturbing imagery of battlefield carnage. But the overriding sentiment is hopeful, the ultimate message a desire to reach a place beyond pain, a place where war is no more.

In the penultimate section, a setting of Whitman's "Dirge for Two Veterans," the chorus seizes on the last line, "My heart gives you love." That, in turn, provides an entry into the well-known prayer attributed to St. Francis, with its aspiration to meet hatred with love, injury with pardon, sadness with joy.

Leshnoff's innately lyrical and communicative style, which yielded striking radiance in his 2003 Violin Concerto (also premiered by the BCO), makes the Requiem eminently listenable, often quite beautiful. But I wish the essentially traditional harmonic language were used in a fresher, more distinctive manner. A lot of the score sounds predictable, some of the instrumental effects (cymbal crashes, tolling bells) rather obvious.

The main problem, though, may be that the work tries to accomplish too much in too short a span. Leshnoff's judiciously chosen texts (including Latin and Hebrew prayers) could use more expansive treatment; his musical ideas, too, might gain in character if they had greater room for development.

Still, there are compelling elements, including some deftly shimmering orchestration.

In the Whitman "Dirge," the line "for the son is brought with the father, and the double grave awaits them" is powerfully set in staccato fashion, as a snare drum suggests the sound of gunfire. And in the St. Francis prayer, Leshnoff avoids what must have been a temptation to set the final word, "joy," as a fortissimo cry, but instead creates a sudden shift inward.

BCO music director Markand Thakar fashioned a cohesive, confident performance. The Handel Choir (prepared by its artistic director Melinda O'Neal) did not always articulate cleanly but offered expressive force. The orchestra offered finely detailed playing.

Providing a postlude to the Requiem and a fitting finale to the program was Brahms' Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny). In this mostly calm and calming reflection on the uncertainty of this life and the promise of the next, choristers and instrumentalists again were sensitive.

The nonvocal first half of the concert opened with Free From Season's Passing by Lee Gannon, a promising Tennessee-born composer who studied with John Corigliano and others. He died from AIDS at 36 in 1996. Thoughts of mortality clearly permeate this reflective 1987 score, which weaves a poetic cello line through an atmospheric orchestral fabric that includes wistful suggestions of birdcall. Struggle animates the music, too, but resignation and beauty prevail.

Thakar drew beautiful playing from cellist Jie Jin and her BCO colleagues.

Schubert put some of his most charming ideas into the Symphony No. 6. Actually, it sounds as if Haydn, Beethoven and Rossini had a party at Schubert's house one night and tried writing a symphony together.

Thakar tapped neatly into the spirited score. His reserved, minimal-gesture style, a refreshing contrast to more prevalent podium approaches, sometimes seemed to prevent the ensemble from really letting loose where it would have been welcome, but the payoff in finesse and subtlety proved considerable.

I've never heard the orchestra in such consistently impressive form as it was throughout this concert. It sounded to me like a new BCO standard being set.


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