Music News & Reviews

Review: 'War Requiem' appropriate coda to tragic week

Symphony director John Nardolillo is no stranger to massive undertakings.
Symphony director John Nardolillo is no stranger to massive undertakings. Lexington Herald-Leader

Last year, when John Nardolillo scheduled the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Benjamin Britten's massive War Requiem for Friday night, he had no way of knowing how appropriate its timing would be. Certainly he and the others involved in the performance would have preferred it weren't so timely, coming on the heels of a tragic week.

While Boston did not go to war this week, it certainly experienced some of its hallmarks. Among those killed in the Boston Marathon bombing was 8-year-old Martin Richard, famously seen in a photo holding a sign that said, "No more hurting people."

That was essentially what pacifist Britten was saying with Requiem, albeit with hundreds of musicians in a composition that might be more appropriately called inspired than brilliant, though it is both.

Because of the 300-or-so musicians required to do the Requiem right, it is not presented often. Friday's performance was at the very least the first Lexington rendition of the 1962 composition in recent memory, if ever.

It somewhat ironically requires the organizational skills of a general to pull the orchestra, huge choir, chamber orchestra, children's choir, and soloists together. At the podium Friday was Nardolillo, who conducted the Boston Pops in December and has forged a relationship between his orchestra and the Boston group. Friday, he elicited an exceedingly sensitive performance from the powerful forces at his disposal.

The best evidence of how powerfully UK presented the work came in several "pin drop" moments, particularly at the end of the performance, when well over 1,000 people were left in near-complete silence.

While Britten designated an overwhelming ensemble, some of the highlights of Requiem come when all the musicians focus on an exquisite pianissimo moment.

Requiem is a mix of the Latin requiem Mass and war poetry by Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who died in World War I.

On stage, the large chorus — a combination of the Lexington Singers and the UK Chorale — and soprano Catherine Clarke Nardolillo delivered the Latin text alongside a small chamber orchestra, conducted by Marcello Cormio, and tenor Justin Vickers and baritone Thomas Gunter. At the back of the Singletary Center for the Arts, Lori Hetzel conducted the Lexington Singers Children's Choir in heavenly interactions with both stage ensembles.

UK alum Vickers made the most of his return to campus with moments like his portrayal of Isaac in the story of Abraham and Isaac; you could see the child in his face as he asked, "Where is the lamb?" He and current UK voice student Gunter created a haunting "strange meeting" between enemy soldiers in the final movement, and throughout they were accompanied by the baker's dozen chamber group, something of a UK orchestra all-star team. There never seemed to be a diminishing of forces when the focus shifted to them, though the larger ensemble had plenty of moments of its own. The fourth movement, "Sanctus," was particularly stunning in its interplay between the soprano and the percussion. UK's nationally revered percussionists shined all night.

Catherine Nardolillo was a strong vocal star through the evening, in part because she carried an appropriately serious demeanor at center stage.

As the forces combined for the finale, powerfully and gently singing, "Into paradise may the angels lead thee," it seemed that after several turbulent and deadly days, including the tragedy in West, Texas, there could be no more appropriate end to the week — except, of course, walking out of the Singletary Center and reading that the second bombing suspect had been captured.

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