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Alan Yamamoto Marshals Troops for 'War Requiem' 

A Plea for Peace

click to enlarge Alan Yamamoto
  • Alan Yamamoto

The irony of "The War Requiem," the British composer Benjamin Britten's pacifist magnum opus, is that mounting a performance of the piece is a logistical feat akin to planning and executing a military campaign. Just ask Alan Yamamoto, the arts division director at Central Piedmont Community College and former resident conductor of the Charlotte Symphony.

"The process has been a little a little hair-raising," said Yamamoto, who conducts "The War Requiem" at 7:30 p.m. at CPCC's Halton Theater April 13 and 14. The performances are part of the Sensoria arts and literature festival.

"The War Requiem" is a massive orchestral work, scored for chorus, boys' choir, three vocal soloists, organ, full orchestra and chamber orchestra. There will be 185 performers onstage, Yamamoto said, 100 of whom comprise the choir and chorus.

Britten, who wrote the piece for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, after the original 14th century structure had been destroyed during World War II, juxtaposed disparate elements to drive home his pacifist message. Using as his foundation the requiem, a traditional Latin mass for the dead, Britten added poems by Wilfred Owen, a World War I British soldier who died just a week short of the war's end.

"Britten definitely meant this piece to be a unifying gesture of reconciliation for all wars, but he tied it specifically to World War I and World War II."

We spoke with Yamamoto recently to find out what audiences might expect from this prodigious local performance.

Creative Loafing: What was the genesis of this massive project?

Yamamoto: First of all, it is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. I thought it was important to commemorate that in some fashion. Of course, I knew of the Britten work. I have sung in this as a member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus when I was but a lad.

Then I talked with Jay Grymes [chair of the UNC Charlotte music department], and it turns out he thinks this piece is one of the great masterpieces of the 20th Century. He also saw this as an opportunity for his faculty to be involved. UNC Charlotte faculty members make up the chamber orchestra contingent of the piece. There are nine UNC Charlotte music student instrumentalists performing in the large orchestra, and the entire University Chorale is part of the combined chorus.

This is also a community-engagement project. We were able to bring in people from various choral groups to form an ad hoc chorus. We also have members from the Queens University choruses, our CPCC chorus, faculty players and musicians from Winthrop and other nearby institutions. Our baritone soloist is from UNC Greensboro. We have players from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, as well as some people from Wake Forest. Over half the people onstage will be students.

Usually when "The War Requiem" is staged, the performers are split into three groups. Where will you place these groups and what do they symbolize?

The boys' chorus will be in the balcony. They're the angelic component. They've already made the transition through the inhumanity and humanity of our lives and our days. Those of us on the stage still have to make the transition. So we will remain on lower ground.

The two male soloists sing the Wilfred Owen poems in English. Those poems depict the soloists as soldiers. They're primarily partner soldiers, but at the very end they're actually opposing soldiers. Britten's message here is that war is horrific and that our inhumanity to man must be examined and questioned. Britten also makes a statement that the men don't want to fight. They're just serving their governments. We will reinforce this presentation with multimedia — we will have visuals going on, illustrating the historical and the literary aspects of this particular work.

The soprano soloist with the full orchestra always sings in Latin. The orchestra and soprano are the foundation of the piece, delivering the typical Latin requiem mass text. It's the centerpiece.

What would you like audiences to come away with from this experience?

We're always hoping that when we throw this giant boulder into the lake that it will create ripples and that we'll grow from those. That said, I don't think there's one thing to take away from this performance. I think people leave concerts with completely different reactions depending on who they are, what their life circumstances are, and what they grasp in that moment.

In contemporary times, people go less and less to live performances. As someone who does the work of live performances, I know it's an experience that cannot be duplicated electronically or online. There is something inexplicable that happens in a live performance simply because you're in the room. It's the same reason we have churches, mass celebrations and mass demonstrations.

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In this clip, the late composer Benjamin Britten talks about his 'War Requiem,' his pacifism, and how an artist's viewpoints and humanity must play into their art:

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