REVIEW: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

Commissioned by the Coventry Cathedral Festival for the 1962 re-consecration of the Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by Nazi bombings during World War II, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a truly haunting piece. Undoubtedly his masterpiece, it combines the Latin liturgy of the Mass for the Dead, sung by soprano and the chorus, and children’s chorus, with the English language war poems of Wilfred Owen, sung by tenor and baritone. The piece was performed this past Saturday by the Ann Arbor Symphony, UMS Choral Union, and Ann Arbor Youth Choral, under the baton of Mr. Scott Hanoian.

The work is chilling from the beginning, and it opens with the tolling of chimes and the chorus quietly chanting “Requiem.” The music is simultaneously very much in the 20th-century style, while also clearly drawing from and referencing much earlier works, and it similarly blends modern poetry with centuries-old liturgy. In some ways, this parallels the old and new cathedrals – the old cathedral was built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the decision to rebuild it was made the morning after its destruction at the hands of the Luftwaffe.

Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.

Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 and the building was consecrated on 25 May 1962, in her presence. The ruins remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living Cathedral.

Source: http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/our-history/

The Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, which sang the part of the children’s chorus, was seated in the balcony, which was a decision that I thought added to the drama of the piece. The Youth Chorale only sings four times in entire eighty-minute work, and because I couldn’t see them from my seat, their entrances were (almost, if it were not for the translations in the program) unexpected. Furthermore, their position above and away from the rest of the performers and the audience gave a feeling of otherworldliness and innocence.

Also strategically positioned on stage was Ms. Tatiana Pavlovskaya, soprano. Rather than being at the front of the stage with Mr. Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Mr. Stephen Powell, baritone, Ms. Pavlovskaya stood in the midst of the orchestra. I think that this probably enhanced the blend between her exquisite voice and the orchestra, and it also was a fascinating artistic decision – in her black gown, she faded into the background of the orchestra, rather than stand out as a soloist.

The cathedral today, old alongside new.

I did appreciate that the words of all parts, as well as the translations of the Latin liturgy, were included in the program so that the audience could follow along for the duration of the work. Simple efforts such as this greatly increase the piece’s accessibility, since most audience members are not fluent in Latin, and sometimes even the words of English pieces are sung too quickly to digest.

At the conclusion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the audience sat in weighted silence for a lengthy period, which I think is a testament to the piece’s lasting impact.

PREVIEW: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

This Saturday, February 16 at 8 pm, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, UMS Choral Union, and Ann Arbor Youth Chorale will join forces to perform Benjamin Britten’s monumental composition, his War Requiem. The featured soloists will include Tatiana Pavlovskaya, soprano, Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Stephen Powell, baritone.

The work was commissioned for the 1962 re-consecration of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1940 by a Nazi bomb raid. Composed of six movements, the War Requiem “mixes the Latin words of the Mass for the Dead with poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just one week before World War I ended.”

The performance will take place at Hill Auditorium, and it will run for approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets may be purchased at ums.org/performance/brittens-war-requiem/ or at the Michigan League Ticket Office.

REVIEW: Complex Rhythms

This past weekend, the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s Department of Dance staged a fantastic performance entitled Complex Rhythms at the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Featuring four separate works, each had its own unique character and feel.

The performance opened with 7 x 12 and a Little Bit of Cha-Cha, a work by Robin Wilson with a jazzy and joyful, toe-tapping feel. Featuring live music by members of the Grammy-nominated ensemble Straight Ahead, I was immediately taken by the musicians’ position onstage, rather than off to the side. Before the dancers entered the stage, the musicians treated the audience to a jazz feature, solidifying the fact that they were an integral part of the work. Throughout the dancers’ rhythmic choreography, it remained evident that music was intended to play a very central role in 7 x 12 and a Little Bit of Cha-Cha. Additionally, the costume design, with bright colors and swinging skirts, complemented both the choreography and the music.

Next was the premier of Studio A, will you die with me? by Jennifer Harge, “a fire ritual that works to disrupt the anti-black, heteronormative, and capitalist structures that live within the fabric of Western dance studios and dance curriculums.” Featuring a backdrop of rows and rows of lit (electric) candles, ashen-colored costumes, glittering masks, and a long blue piece of fabric spread across the front of the stage, it was a performance that was at once unsettling and challenging, confusing and thought-provoking. Additionally, the soundtrack of the choreography was norm-defying and fascinating – it was an aural hodge podge that was not exclusively music, and for a length of time it was a recording of what seemed to me to be a woman humming singing while washing dishes.

My personal favorite of the evening was Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a new work by Bill DeYoung set to a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” by the University of Michigan Symphony Band. With a backdrop of lights that resembled a collage of starry night sky and brick wall, the entire performance had a swinging, urban vibe that hearkened back to another era, while simultaneously remaining modern.

Last was probably the most monumental of the evening’s works, Shelter by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. First staged in 1988 “to address the suffering and isolation of homelessness,” the version performed by the Department of Dance was adapted after Hurricane Katrina “to address the lives of the people that the hurricane left homeless.” It was a powerful performance, featuring spoken word (by Associate Professor Robin Wilson, original company member of Urban Bush Women, who first staged Shelter in 1988) and percussion as accompaniment to the emotive choreography. “I ain’t fled nothing. My country fled me,” Professor Wilson emphatically repeated.

Complex Rhythms explored a wide variety of human emotion and struggle, and it was a boundary-challenging, thought-provoking performance. Congratulations on an excellent performance to all those involved!

REVIEW: On the Basis of Sex

The film On the Basis of Sex, a celebration of the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is inspiring, educational and thoroughly enjoyable.

The movie opens with a crowd of what appears to be all men – first year law students – parading in to be addressed by the school’s dean, all to the fitting tune “10,000 Men of Harvard.” Then, in the sea of feet clad in men’s dress shoes, the camera focuses on a high-heeled pair marching in their midst – the feet of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class.

In the dean’s address to the students, he speaks of the students using only male pronouns, and it becomes clear that he does not believe that a woman has any place at Harvard Law School. Then, if there was any doubt in viewers’ minds about this fact, at a supposed welcome dinner for the nine women, the dean asks them to “report who [they] are, and why [they] are occupying a place that could have gone to a man.” To suppressed snickers from the other female students, Ruth Bader Ginsburg reports that her “husband is in the second-year class,” and she is at Harvard “to learn more about his work, so [she] can be a more patient and understanding wife.”

In contrast to this, it becomes apparent throughout the movie that Justice Ginsburg’s marriage to her husband Martin Ginsburg, portrayed by Armie Hammer, was profoundly modern for the time period. He was a tax lawyer, and unconditionally supportive of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s professional aspirations. In fact, he was the one who found her the court case that would become the climax of the movie.

The court case, which involved Charles Moritz, a man caring for his mother who was denied a caregiver’s tax deduction because he was not female, would ultimately be taken to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. In my opinion, though still enjoyable, the actual courtroom scenes were probably among the movie’s weakest, because the way they were portrayed seemed rather cliché. Ruth Bader Ginsburg stumbled severely during the oral argument, and then appeared to save the case in her rebuttal. In fact, Justice Ginsburg herself recalls that “[she] didn’t stumble at the outset.” However, enthusiasts of United States government and politics will certainly appreciate the numerous references to landmark Supreme Court cases sprinkled throughout the movie (I know I did).

Overall, it’s hard to condense a life into 120 minutes, and in my opinion, On the Basis of Sex did an excellent job. I am personally surprised that the movie only has a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While it may be true that the film offers a glorified, simplified version of Justice Ginsburg’s earlier years, we are, after all, looking back on history through a lens colored by the knowledge that the film’s heroine would become a leading litigator for gender equality, and then a member of the nation’s highest Court. The movie is not a comprehensive biography, nor do I think it was intended to be one. If the movie leaves the audience more curious than when they came, then in many ways, I think that is a victory.

I, for one, could not stop smiling for at least half the movie (“Is that an answer, Mrs. Ginsburg, or a filibuster?”), and watching On the Basis of Sex has only increased my curiosity and desire to learn more about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The film is currently showing at the Michigan Theater.

REVIEW: Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Linocuts by Meredith Stern

Nestled in the Special Collections Research Center on the sixth floor of Hatcher Graduate Library, Meredith Stern’s set of linocuts inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn’t likely to be something that you would stumble upon by accident. That being said, they are well worth the trip.

A total of 14 of her prints, which are made by cutting the design into linoleum, are on display. Each depicts a different article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, due largely to the efforts of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (see the preview for this event for more information regarding the document). In each print, the text of the article frames an image representing it, and some of them include text on the image that calls to attention a modern violation of the right that that article was meant to guarantee.

For example, the linocut of Article 9, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile,” features an image of a young boy wearing a backpack, with his back to onlookers and his hands on the wall, being searched by a policeman. Article 3, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person,” is accompanied with the text “Freedom of gender identity is fundamental for personal autonomy.” The words “Free Palestine,” along with an image of two children, accompany article 15, “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, nor denied the right to change their nationality.” Issues that, in our time, have become political are portrayed in a non-political context – as rights that every person born is entitled to.

    Meredith Stern’s linocuts both raise awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as show that the rights defined in it are as relevant as ever. I think that oftentimes, a document such as this seems abstract as words on the page, and we don’t think of the text as having a human face. However, looking at the prints on display, this view is clearly incorrect. It becomes obvious that the rights outlined in the document still aren’t universal 70 years after the Declaration’s adoption, and that there are real, human consequences of this fact. It is up to each of us to work to change this.

  The collection of linocuts was on display from December 10th through February 1st, and they are an excellent example of art as a form of activism. 70 years after the Universal of Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the United Nations General Assembly, we still have a very long way to go, and every one of us must be a part of the solution.

 


“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt

PREVIEW: Complex Rhythms

The University of Michigan Department of Dance will present their annual concert, Complex Rhythms, from February 7-10 at the Power Center for the Performing Arts. It feature the re-staging of a “noted twentieth-century masterpiece,” as well as “three new creations.”

Included in this year’s works is Shelter, an “unsentimental commentary about homelessness and disenfranchisement” that was created in 1988 by Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Additionally, professor of dance Bill DeYoung sets a new work to Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” in commemoration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

Grab a Passport to the Arts and take it to the Michigan League Ticket Office for a free ticket to this not-to-be-missed event! Showtimes include February 7th at 7:30 pm, February 8th and 9th at 8pm, and February 10th at 2pm.