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Wichita Symphony performance of ‘War Requiem’ falls on Armistice Day Centennial

Benjamin Britten’s “The War Requiem” puts music to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a soldier who was killed in action a week before the Armistice.
Benjamin Britten’s “The War Requiem” puts music to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a soldier who was killed in action a week before the Armistice.

Leaders of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra say scheduling Benjamin Britten’s “The War Requiem” for performances next weekend comes from a sense of cultural and historic obligation.

The two performances of the work – recognized by many experts as one of the most difficult pieces to convey for both its text and musical mastery – will include a performance on Nov. 11, the centennial anniversary of Armistice Day, which ended World War I. The date has been celebrated since as Veterans Day.

“We’ve been planning for this maybe as long as four years ago,” symphony CEO Don Reinhold said, “when we looked at the calendar and realized that our Sunday concert would fall on the weekend of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.”

The Wichita Symphony will join dozens of symphonies – including Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Toronto and Washington, D.C. – in performing the Britten on the same day, without any coordination or collaboration among the groups.

“It seemed like, to us, a no-brainer,” Reinhold said. “It was an opportunity to do something extremely significant in remembrance of an important historical event that people paid for with their lives.”

Britten’s “Requiem,” first performed in 1962, puts music to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a soldier who was killed in action a week before the Armistice.

“He lost his life, but he lived on in these poems from the perspective of a soldier in the trenches,” Reinhold said. “They’re heartbreaking and they’re terrifying.”

Owen’s poetry is interspersed with the text of a traditional Latin mass.

“It’s a very intriguing piece structurally and it has this potent message,” Reinhold said. “Britten’s intent was to make people think.”

Tenor Matthew DiBattista and baritone Timothy LeFebvre sing Owen’s text backed by a smaller chamber orchestra that also will be on stage at Century II. Soprano Courtenay Budd is the third soloist.

Britten’s score, which uses trumpet calls to signify the call to battle and percussion to demonstrate the crash of cannons and guns, “makes it a very immersive experience in many ways,” Reinhold said.

Besides the soloists, a 140-member adult choir and a 30-voice children’s choir convey the texts.

Michael Hanawalt, who conducts the choruses, said the text has moved the adult singers.

“It’s definitely sunk in for the adults,” said Hanawalt, associate professor of choral music at Wichita State. “There are a number of them who are veterans and at least close to an age where they can remember World War II and the wars of the last half of the 20th century.”

One of the chorus members is providing paper poppies for the singers to wear on the days of the performances, he said.

The text is impactful, Hanawalt said.

“The main theme of his piece is that war is difficult and it shouldn’t ever be sugarcoated in any way,” he said. “(Britten) has written a correspondingly dense, difficult piece that is immensely heavy. You perform this piece and you hear this piece and you come away feeling the weight of this music.”

Besides the weight of the text, the piece is technically challenging, Hanawalt said.

“It’s quite difficult, both harmonically and rhythmically. Keeping everything together with meter changes and tempo changes and the harmonic changes is quite difficult,” he said. “It is easily the most difficult piece that I have done with a chorus since I’ve been directing. Give me another 10 years and it probably still will be.”

Reinhold said the conclusion will leave lumps in the throats of the audience, with the text “Into Paradise may the Angels lead thee -- at thy coming may the Martyrs receive thee.”

“It all comes together in this incredible conclusion,” he said. “It’s deep stuff.”

In announcing the Britten “Requiem” for the 2018-19 season, conductor and music director Daniel Hege said the content still holds true 100 years later.

“It’s a really big production to put on, but this is the time to do it because we’re experiencing war today, and this is the time to comment on that,” Hege said in February when announcing the season.

The performances are part of a citywide remembrance of the Armistice anniversary next weekend, coordinated by the symphony, Wichita Art Museum and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

With the “Requiem,” last performed by the Wichita Symphony about 20 years ago, the orchestra proves that the arts can lead the community, Reinhold said.

“Some people come to the symphony for entertainment,” he said. “I really don’t want to use that word for this concert. But I think there are times when a symphony orchestra can be a voice of remembrance and memory and awareness.”

Armistice remembered

The centennial of the World War I Armistice is remembered this month by the Wichita Symphony, Wichita Art Museum and Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

In addition to the performances, the Symphony offers pre-concert talks by music director and conductor Daniel Hege one hour before each performance.

The Art Museum currently features an exhibit, “Over Here, Over There: American Printmakers Go to War, 1914-1918,” and will offer a Mess Kit Lunch (reservations recommended) beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, followed by a lecture by Wichita State University history professor John Dreifort on “The Great War and ‘No Futures for This Generation.’”

The Historical Museum will present a lecture, “The Great War’s Impact at Home” by Robert E. Weems Jr., professor of Business History at Wichita State. This lecture takes place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Historical Museum.

Following the Sunday-afternoon performance of “The War Requiem,” the Historical Museum will complete the day-long exploration of World War I with “Reflection and Exploration” that includes a reception, music and exhibitions. In addition, the Wichita Public Library will present a companion event of a poetry reading and music at its Senior Wednesday, which will be at 1:30 p.m. on in the new Advanced Learning Library.

BRITTEN’S ‘THE WAR REQUIEM’

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $20 to $70, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office

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