REVIEW: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was commissioned for the re-consecration of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, a beautiful church tragically destroyed in a World War II bombing. Britten himself was a staunch pacifist who had registered as a conscientious objector during the war, and the unique combination of these two elements gave birth to a piece that cuts through the gloss of glorified war stories into the more complex, tragic truth of the raw destruction of war. The text of the 80-minute choral piece is assembled from the Latin Mass for the Dead and the poems of Wilfred Owen, a World War I soldier who was killed just a week before the armistice at the young age of 25. Owen’s poetry is plainly anti-war, and the first of his lines in the piece is the chilling “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”.


The requiem was presented as the collaboration between the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the UMS Choral Union, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, as well as three vocal soloists. The addition of the children’s chorale as specified by the original work adds a uniquely haunting aspect to the piece, a reminder that war ultimately results in a great deal of innocence lost, and the sacrifice of young lives with full futures ahead. Britten alternates between dissonant chanting mixed with layers of percussion and smooth, lyrical passages as the piece glides from movement to movement. Yet throughout the entire piece, the atmosphere is solemn, almost haunting. Britten refuses to let the audience forget why the piece was conceived, as a response to a tragedy brought about by the senselessness of war. It is impossible to hear the words of Owen echo through the auditorium in the rich tenor of soloist Anthony Dean Griffey without feeling an acute sense of what we have lost to the cruelty of war. Owen himself was a poet who garnered an abundance of post-humous acclaim despite his short career and the few poems he wrote; his career was brought to an abrupt end by a premature death on the battlefield.


Owen is merely one of many young talents, or simply young people, or people in general, whose lives were stolen from them by the merciless combat between sides. War Requiemserves as a haunting reminder that war is not a necessary evil, nor is it one we can afford to distance ourselves from. In the United States, it is perilously easy to turn a blind eye to those suffering from wartime brutality in other countries and in the modern age it is perilously easy to designate war as a “necessary evil”, a tragic yet inevitable byproduct of civilization. Yet as Britten wants us to remember, in a society as advanced as ours, the fact that we have accepted senseless violence over superficial causes as the price of civilization ought to haunt us, and we ought to remember that we have more power over our fates than we like to admit.

REVIEW: China NCPA Orchestra

What a performance!

I must admit, when I came to the auditorium, the one face I was most excited to see was Wu Man’s. Back home, my dad was a fan of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Ensemble, so it was just such a pleasant surprise seeing her name in the UMS performances booklet. The main bulk of the pieces, however, was handled by the orchestra itself- she showed up in only one of the three performances.

But I’m not complaining!

While Wu Man’s solos were great, I couldn’t help but be ultimately infected by the overwhelming spirit and energy maintained by the orchestra throughout the entire show.

Anyway, back to the actual review. The theme was, I believe, exploration.  They started off with a virtuosic opera-style piece called “Luan Tan,” a stylistic experiment by composer Qigang Chen. Wu Man showed up for the second performance, Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra,” a package of 7 short pieces incorporating and exploring musical styles from all over the world. In addition to this performance, Wu Man played and improvised her very own “Leaves Falling Autumn,” with UM professor Joe Gramley. After intermission, the orchestra performed Brahm’s Symphony No. 4 in e minor, Op. 98, Brahm’s last composition for symphony.

The Good Stuff:

Luan Tan: In Qigang Chen’s own words: “Elements that usually appear in my works […] are almost completely absent, replaced by ceaseless rhythmic pattern, leaps of tiny motifs, and gradually accumulated force through repetitions.”

In my own words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in a Chinese drama. Below I added the only sound recording file small enough to fit here. This melody was a motif repeated throughout the piece and it reminded me of chirping birds signalling the entrance of Snow White. A similar melody that was deeper, slower, and combined with clashing cymbals often followed this one, seemingly indicating the presence of dwarves.

Luan Tan excerpt

Lou Harrison’s “Bits & Pieces”: Each movement was a visual and auditory treat.

“Three Sharing” was the most interesting piece I saw. The only instruments in this piece, the pipa and the cello, weren’t actually played, but simply used. Wu Man rapped out a high pitched beat by drumming the base of her pipa while other cello musicians accompanied the rhythm with their own drumming.

Excerpt of Three Sharing

I liked the rest of the performances under “Bits and Pieces.” I could no longer tell whether I was hearing Middle Eastern, Chinese, or Western-style music because they were so expertly melded together. I simply allowed the music to wash over me.

Bits & Pieces excerpt

Overall, a highly recommended performance!

Standing ovation at the Hill Auditorium.

REVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic

It is a rare event when you get to see some of the world’s best musicians all on a stage together, directed by the very famous Simon Rattle. What was almost as special as this was the mere fact of how many people showed up to Hill Auditorium both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon to see the Berlin Phil. I know that classical music can sometimes be a tad old-fashioned or out of the interests of millennials, but it was incredibly encouraging to see the masses of people, all different ages and backgrounds, coming out to see the concert.

The performance started with a more contemporary piece called Éclat by Boulez. The piece contrasted a variety of instruments on stage, from mandolin to harpsichord. Every musician had to be incredibly attentive to one another, as their entrances came randomly and spaced out by an arbitrary number of rests. Additionally, the combination of instruments kept changing to showcase different mixtures voices. Though it was not my personal favorite, the piece offered a fascinating contrast to the following part of the program.

The next piece they played was Mahler’s 7th Symphony. I have long been biased towards Mahler’s work, always feeling incredibly in tune with his melodies and emotionally connected to the solos. One of the most impressive aspects of the Philharmonic’s performance was the woodwind solis, which usually consisted of the flute, oboe, and clarinet principals, as well as the second principals at times. These few musicians were perfectly connected in their musicality and phrasing, to the extent that their separate instrument timbres would melt into one another at the end of a phrase. This was such a treat to hear, being a clarinetist myself and always enjoying the beautiful bell tones of a leading clarinet player.

But of course, I have to also mention the conductor. Rattle was a very enthusiastic conductor, but not to the extent like some others such as Dudamel. His exuberance was more subtle and concentrated into his communication with the musicians. Most of all, you could tell how close the director and symphony had come, when at the end Rattle traveled through the orchestra and shook the hand of every principal musician. It was a very touching moment, and I believe the entire audience felt its impact.


Image by Kim Sinclair

by Kim Sinclair

PREVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic

When? Saturday, Nov 12 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, Nov 13 at 4:00 pm

Where? Hill Auditorium

How Much? Students: $20, General Admission: $50 – $185

Why? It has been 7 years since the Berlin Philharmonic last came to Ann Arbor, and it is the final US tour of the orchestra with their director Simon Rattle. They are performing some of the most spectacular pieces ever composed, including Mahler’s 7th Symphony and Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. It will be a couple days you do not want to miss.

Image by Sebastian Haenel

by Kim Sinclair

REVIEW: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

October has been a very exciting month for orchestra lovers; from the New York Philharmonic’s residency in Ann Arbor earlier this month to this performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, we have not been disappointed.

A bit of bragging moment: earlier that day, I had an opportunity to play for Dwight Parry, an oboist from Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra who has been touring with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the principal oboe. He was very inspirational — with much focus on technique as well as musicality, I learned a lot from him. Here’s a proof:

Oboist Dwight Parry (right) instructing me to play with more forward motion.
Oboist Dwight Parry (right) instructing me at the master class.

As a orchestral musician, Mr. Parry has a lot of experience in auditioning and judging auditions. Many of us classical musicians stress over the whole audition process all the time. Winning a position in an orchestra through auditions is extremely difficult — with hundreds of well-qualified applicants fighting over one seat, which is typically to be filled for decades once someone wins the spot. He mentioned that, when he is judging auditions, he is looking for a “colleague” — someone that can play in tune and in tempo, and that is overall pleasant to work with. These words stuck out to me as a lesson.

After that interaction with Mr. Parry, seeing him among many other superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made me feel much closer to the orchestra. And I thought a lot about colleagues in an ensemble. What does it mean to play with the same people on your left and on your right for many, many years? Ideally, these players would develop the chemistry among them that make the “group” sound instead of “individual” sounds. However, this is not always the case, as conflicts and drama do happen. How do you act professional and deliver high-quality music to the audience with your colleagues?

To me, CSO seemed to do this very well. From the first “overture” — “The Victors” — to the last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, the chemistry was there. (Has “The Victors” become a new tradition for all orchestras visiting Ann Arbor to play?) Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (with the iconic “duh-duh-duh-dummmmm” in the first movement) and Mahler’s First Symphony (with full of contrasts and shining moments for all instruments) are both classic favorites, and CSO gave no less than spectacular.

UMS has two more (international!) orchestras coming this season: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from London in January, and Montreal Symphony Orchestra from Quebec in March. I am very much looking forward to exploring more orchestral artistry in the upcoming months.



PREVIEW: New York Philharmonic Residency


Photo: Chris Lee

One of the best orchestras in the United States, the New York Philharmonic, is coming to town later this week and offering a bunch of festivities in the next few days.

The New York Philharmonic is visiting Ann Arbor for an adventurous five-year residency program with the University Musical Society (UMS) and the School of Music, Theater, and Dance (SMTD). As a result, the New York Phil personnel will be offering a lot of master classes, concerts, lectures, and even a halftime show at the Homecoming football game (!) in the next few days. Check them out:


Keynote Address: Orchestras in the 21st Century: A New Paradigm
6:00 pm, Rackham Auditorium, FREE

Join Maestro Alan Gilbert, the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, as he gives his keynote speech on the role of orchestras in the 21st century.

New York Philharmonic Residency Kickoff: Side-by-Side Concert
7:30pm, Rackham Auditorium, FREE

Eight students from the School of Music are playing chamber music with the New York Philharmonic musicians in this free concert. They have been rehearsing a lot and are sounding great already!


Public Master Classes
Time Varies, School of Music Moore Building (1100 Baits Dr.), FREE

Many musicians from the New York Philharmonic are giving master classes throughout the day. Check the link above to see if your favorite musician is giving one! All are open to public.

Lecture: 21st Century Orchestras and Social Impact
1:30 pm, Room R1240 of Ross School of Business, FREE

Come hear the President of the New York Philharmonic, Matthew VanBesien, talk about his view on how the orchestra can make a huge impact despite its challenges today.

New York Philharmonic – Performance 1
8:00 pm, Hill Auditorium

Friday night’s performance will consist of classical favorites including two works by Beethoven. Student tickets ($12 and $20) are slim, if not sold out, for this concert as of this writing.


New York Philharmonic – Performance 2
8:30 pm, Hill Auditorium, FREE with the Passport to the Arts

Saturday night’s performance explores some newer works, including one by the New York Philharmonic composer-in-residence, Esa Pekka Salonen. Student tickets ($12 and $20) are available at as well as the Michigan League Ticket Office, or you can also get a FREE ticket using the Passport to the Arts if redeemed before the night of the event!


Interview and Discussion with Vince Ford, director of digital media at the New York Philharmonic
9:30 am, Britton Recital Hall at the School of Music (1100 Baits Dr.)

Come hear Vince Ford, Director of Digital Media, talk about how digital media can be a great tool for marketing in this age. There will be breakfast served before the event as well.

Public Master Classes
Time Varies, School of Music Moore Building (1100 Baits Dr.), FREE

There will be another round of master classes by the musicians of the New York Philharmonic on Sunday. Check them out at the link above!

New York Philharmonic – Performance 3
3:00 pm, Hill Auditorium

The third and final performance by the orchestra for this year will feature “On the Waterfront” by Leonard Bernstein – the legendary composer and long-time conductor at the New York Philharmonic. This concert will be preceded by Dig In with UMS, where you can meet your fellow concertgoers in a casual setting with food and activities.


This is a very unique opportunity to see such a high-class orchestra for multiple days in multiple settings. Don’t miss out, Ann Arbor!