Philharmonic joins voices in stirring ‘War Requiem’

Richard Pittman conducted the “War Requiem’’ Saturday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross with the New England Philharmonic along with with three choral groups and soloists.
Richard Pittman conducted the “War Requiem’’ Saturday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross with the New England Philharmonic along with with three choral groups and soloists.KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The conductor Richard Pittman could easily fill his New England Philharmonic season exclusively with performances of well-known symphonic staples, but he instead chooses to infuse his programs with a spirit of inquiry and exploration. It’s an approach that speaks for itself. Last year, when ASCAP presented 26 ensembles from around the country with its annual awards for adventurous programming, Pittman’s NEP won the first-place award in its budget class.

In addition to maintaining a healthy commitment to music by living composers, Pittman has occasionally tackled landmark 20th-century masterworks that might be seen as lying outside the purview of an orchestra with a modest budget, a handful of performance dates per year, and a mixed roster of professional, amateur, and student players. In 2007, for instance, the NEP gave the first performance of Berg’s “Wozzeck’’ heard in Boston in two decades.


This year, in celebration of the orchestra’s 35th anniversary, Pittman set his sights on Britten’s massive “War Requiem,’’ a moving statement of pacifism premiered in England in 1962 to consecrate a new church built in Coventry, where a German air raid early in World War II had destroyed its famous cathedral. The “War Requiem’’ has since become one of Britten’s most celebrated works, no longer a rarity, yet every performance still counts as an occasion.

So on Saturday night there was a sense of event in the air as a large crowd streamed into the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Washington Street to hear Pittman and the NEP joined by the combined forces of the Chorus Pro Musica and the Providence Singers (both are directed by Betsy Burleigh) and the Boston Children’s Chorus (directed by Anthony Trecek-King).

Britten’s work itself brings together the traditional Catholic requiem mass for the dead with settings of pointed antiwar poetry by Wilfred Owen, a poet who fought and died on the battlefields of World War I. And this interweaving of sources is key to the music’s potency, as the broad and timeless Latin prayers are by turns sharpened, deepened, and even sometimes undercut by Owen’s verse, which itself holds a mirror to the horrors of modern industrialized warfare and to the tragic futility of a conflict that sent a generation of Europe’s youth, as Owen writes, to “die as cattle’’ in its trenches.


Britten calls for large musical forces but deploys them judiciously, with Owen’s texts sung by tenor and baritone soloists. The large mixed chorus with soprano soloist take on the bulk of the Latin requiem texts, with a few of their most ethereal moments assigned to an overtly angelic children’s chorus supported by organ. Saturday’s concert turned the vast dimensions of the cathedral to its advantage by placing the Boston’s Children’s Chorus (which, by the way, did itself proud) in an organ loft at the rear of the church, maximizing the sense of celestial distance.

On the whole, it was an impressively poised, solemn, and moving performance that brought honor to all the ensembles involved. The soloists were particularly fine, with tenor Frank Kelley singing with clarion tone and stirring immediacy, and baritone Sumner Thompson matching him with gravity, dignity, and pathos. (Their duo “So Abram rose,’’ Owen’s harrowing distortion of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac, became one of the evening’s most memorable moments.) Sarah Pelletier displayed a robust and affecting soprano, cresting above the well-blended chorus.


The orchestra played well, too, even if some of the intricate inner details of Britten’s scoring were lost in the massive cathedral space. Plenty of those details did come through, especially in the sprawling “Dies Irae’’ movement, home to some of the most devastating Owen texts but also capped on Saturday by choral singing of great tenderness and beauty.

It was ultimately a performance that made its impact less through thunder and dramatic heat than through its unity of character and emotional precision. On the podium Pittman eschewed imperious high drama in favor of clear gestures that projected a seriousness of purpose and a more soft-spoken humility. The grandeur of this music, he clearly knew, could speak for itself.