An Australian War Requiem—review

Renowned mezzo-soprano Lauris Elms AM OBE attended the premiere of  ‘An Australian War Requiem’ on 10 August 2014, and has kindly provided the following review of the performance.

In this century we have grown accustomed to war, and celebrating violence seems to happen on a daily basis.
It was with great interest that we went to the Sydney Town Hall last Sunday to hear Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem.

The old Town Hall has seen many wonderful concerts in the 19th and 20th Century, and the performance we were about to hear ranked with the most memorable of those experiences.

When we walked into the building, we saw a large screen set up over the stage, showing scenes from the Great War.

Britten’s War Requiem is justly regarded as a masterpiece, and now we have an Australian War Requiem to stand unashamedly beside it.

Chrisopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem was one of the most moving and profound experiences I have had for many years. The splendid text was based on letters written between Australian mothers and their sons in far away France. The letters were printed in the program for us to read, and Pamela Traynor’s text was beautifully built on real events, as those young men lived – and died – through those terrible times.

The work is divided into three parts; Tableau 1. The Horrors of War. Tableau 2. Sons and Mothers, and Tableau 3. Reflections on Loss.

The concert began with the screen showing a woman, as the narrator read a mother’s letter to her son, we saw the young man, and then heard his letter to her. Each of the Three Tableaux was preceded by five scenes from the war being fought in France.

The music began with the bass (Atatürk), and the large choir singing the Requiem Aeternam very softly. As the children’s choir was joined by the soprano and large choir, the work gradually grew to show the tragedy which was to unfold.

As the splendid baritone soloist sang the words of a dying soldier from the battlefield, and the music built to the climax, I was moved to tears. The final moments, as a piper played the bagpipes, was inspiration.

The concept of the presentation was wonderful, as we were transported into the horror of those days by the music of Bowen and his magnificent orchestration, by Traynor’s masterly libretto, and the images presented on the screen, helping the viewer to identify the journey we were traveling.

The Sydney University Graduate Choir sounded supremely confident, with a rich tone in this large hall. The other choirs, Waitara Voices and Fort Street High School, were very well prepared and gave of their best.

The splendid soloists were Celeste Lazarenko and Ayse Göknur Shanal sopranos, Christopher Richardson baritone and the exceptional Adrian Tamburini, bass-baritone. They were joined, stepping into this new and difficult work at late notice, by the magnificent tenor Henry Choo. (Why do we not hear more of this wonderful operatic tenor?) All the soloists were obviously moved to be part of this beautiful and important new work, and to find the music easily accessible at first listening was for me, a great pleasure.

Christopher Bowen has written some fine work over the years. In An Australian Requiem he has established himself as a great composer for all time. Musically this was a thrilling and unforgettable experience.

Lauris Elms



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