Review: UK Symphony’s presentation of Britten’s War Requiem

The hundreds of musicians in the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra's performance of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" receive a standing ovation. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

The hundreds of musicians in the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” receive a standing ovation. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

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. And certainly he and the others involved in the performance would have preferred it wasn’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, including improvised explosive devices, a suicide bomber, and shelter-in-place orders. And there were casualties: Officer Sean Collier Thursday night, and at the Marathon Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell, and 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 and 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, massive choir, chamber orchestra, children’s choir, and soloists together in a performance of the Requiem. 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 biggest evidence of how powerfully UK presented the work came in silence: the several “pin drop” moments, particularly at the end of the performance, where well over 1,000 people were left in near-perfect silence.

While Britten designated an overwhelming ensemble, some of the highlights of the Requiem are small moments or how all those musicians can be focused on an exquisite pianissimo moment.

The 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 while a small chamber orchestra, conducted by Marcello Cormio, and tenor Justin Vickers and baritone Thomas Gunter sang. Located 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 where 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 shining 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-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 the second bombing suspect had been captured.

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