Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2012, 10:37 am

Remembering the horrors of war

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By Jonathan Turner,

Photo: Submitted
The Augustana College Choir performs at a church in Leipzig, Germany, during its recent European tour. The choir will be part of the Quad City Symphony performance of Britten's 'War Requiem' this weekend.
For members of the Augustana College Choir, singing with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra this weekend in the massive production of "War Requiem" will be especially meaningful, given where they recently performed it.

As part of its European tour the past two weeks, the 65-student choir unfurled a 50th-anniversary rendition of Benjamin Britten's anti-war masterwork at a music school in Detmold, Germany, with students from Hochschule fur Musik Detmold, University of Minnesota, and Macalester College in Minneapolis, under the direction of Mark Russell Smith, Quad City Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor.

"The most rewarding part was at the end of the first performance. We stood at the end for a minute and soaked up what we accomplished, and then the audience gave us a 10-minute standing ovation," said Kaitlin Ross, an Augie choir member from Rockford, Ill., by email. "It's the best thing I've ever done in performance."

"The German audience was so special because they all had such a close connection with the 'War Requiem,'" she said.

"Germany is a very war-stricken country ... a place where the walls actually show the history of war itself and how it can be devastating," agreed Ben Humbert, a choir member from Geneva, Ill. "Going back to the U.S., we hope to relate that experience of singing with the German people to our audience in the Quad-Cities."

The "War Requiem" -- which never before has been performed in the Quad-Cities -- was commissioned for the 1962 rededication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been destroyed by the German Air Force during World War II.

It combines a setting of the Requiem Mass around nine poems by English poet and fallen World War I soldier Wilfred Owen.

The QCSO, the University of Minnesota School of Music, and the Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany, under Mr. Smith, embarked on an international collaboration to perform it. He is leading it tonight at the University of Minnesota, where he serves as director of orchestral studies, before returning to the Quad-Cities.

Here, the QCSO will perform it with the Chamber Orchestra from Detmold, the Minnesota Boychoir, University of Minnesota Chorale, Macalester College Concerti Choir, Augustana Choir, and 50 community members of Quad City Choral Arts, as well as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.

Mr. Britten (1913 -1976) was an English composer, conductor and pianist, as well as a central figure of 20th-century British classical music. His operas include "Peter Grimes," "The Rape of Lucretia," "Albert Herring," "The Beggar's Opera," "Billy Budd," "Gloriana," "The Turn of the Screw," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the popular "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra."

"What Britten does is take the familiar, like the architecture of Coventry Cathedral -- the Requiem Mass, and he almost quotes the Verdi Requiem and Mozart Requiem -- and he adds something new," Mr. Smith said last month. "He adds the 20th-century perspective, the World War I perspective."

The conductor said Wilfred Owen -- who was killed during the final days of World War I -- "wrote some of the most powerful war poetry that exists."

"This is a piece about the tragedy of war, the stakes involved, and a profound reminder of all of it," Mr. Smith said of the requiem. "This is one of the most powerful works written in the 20th century."

The two male soloists represent soldiers and sing the poetry of Mr. Owen. A boys' choir adds disembodied, comforting voices, as from heaven. In addition to the hundreds of performers the piece requires, the music itself is also a bear to wrangle.

"The most challenging aspect is definitely the technical difficulty of the music itself," Ms. Ross, of Augie, said. "The way that it was composed, everything needed to be solid."

"When I first picked up the piece, I laughed because it looked so hard," Mr. Humbert said. "It's been a challenge, but a challenge together with multiple people from Augustana and the Hochschule fur Musik. Since we've had those challenges together, its been fun to overcome them."

"I would have never been able to get to Germany otherwise," Ms. Ross said of the tour, which took them to some of the most beautiful and acoustically spectacular churches in Germany and Austria.

Inspired by "War Requiem," organizations throughout the Quad-Cities have projects designed to complement the experience, expand upon the context of the requiem, and connect the tragic experiences of the 20th century to our own ongoing global conflicts -- in what's called the Britten Peace Project.

One of those events is a screening of Derek Jarman's film "War Requiem" on Saturday and Sunday at the Figge Art Museum, 225 W. 2nd St., Davenport . A cash bar will open at 5:30 p.m., and the 92-minute movie will begin at 6:30 p.m. Variety called the 1989 film "a stunning visual and serious music treat."

"War Requiem" features Tilda Swinton in a moving interpretation of the music. A release on the film says Mr. Jarman "interprets Britten's six movements in eye-popping and heartbreaking dialogue-free tableaus illustrating war's infinite futility, sacrifice and waste. 'War Requiem' boldly combines archival footage of war's devastation with Jarman's keen and gifted eye for both the theatrical and the political as Owen, played by Nathaniel Parker, doggedly struggles to survive on the field of battle in defense of a cause rendered unjust by the human toll it takes in the trenches and on the home front."

The Washington Post wrote that "War Requiem" is a "violent, horrifying, ultimately inspiring film" that is an "eloquent, complex and profoundly negative statement on war."

For a complete schedule of Britten Peace Project events, visit

If you go

-- What: Quad City Symphony Orchestra's "War Requiem."
-- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
-- Where: Saturday at the Adler Theatre, 136 E. 3rd St., Davenport; Sunday at Centennial Hall, 3703 7th Ave., Augustana College, Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $9 to $51 Saturday and $5 to $35 Sunday, available at (563) 322-7276,, or Members of the military and their families are eligible for free tickets through the USO of Illinois.

Other Britten Peace Project Quad-Cities events include:

-- 5:30 p.m. today at the Hotel Blackhawk, Davenport: Inside the Music program will feature George Eaton, Army Sustainment Command Historian, describing the British trench experience in World War I and its influence on the poetry of Wilfred Owens.
-- 5:30 p.m. Friday: the same lecture by Mr. Eaton at the Caisson Room, Building 60, Rock Island Arsenal (down the hall from the Rock Island Arsenal Museum).
-- 8 p.m. Saturday at Davenport North High School: Ballet Quad Cities will present "From the Pages of a Young Girl’s Life: The Story of Anne Frank."
-- 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday: Concert Conversations before QCSO performances with host Kai Swanson and Mark Russell Smith, QCSO music director.