The Sounds of Stow Chorus’ collaborative performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on November 12th in Worcester will be especially memorable for one particular member.
Acton resident Naomi Newell will be singing with the alto section, reprising a performance she first delivered for the American premier of this masterpiece in the summer of 1963. She recently shared some recollections of that historic event with the Director of the Sounds of Stow, Barbara Jones.
Considered one of the greatest choral works of the twentieth century, the War Requiem debuted in this country on a steamy summer evening at Tanglewood under the baton of conductor Eric Leinsdorf. He had selected Boston’s highly acclaimed Chorus Pro Musica to accompany the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Naomi, then a member of the chorus, quickly came to know the complexity and difficulty of the new work during its preparation. She describes it as “difficult and challenging, although not daunting.” Still, she was unsure of how it would be received by a summer audience, hearing it for the first time. But when asked what she remembered most about this seminal performance, she immediately answered, “the 17-minute ovation!” Clearly the audience “got” the piece, responding to its emotional message, and recognizing it for the tour de force it is. WGBH filmed that concert, broadcasting it in August, 1963; it is currently available on DVD and truly captures the momentous nature of the event in great detail.
Naomi, who has sung with the Sounds of Stow for over 15 years, was delighted when she learned she would have the opportunity to revisit the work this season. Given the scale of the piece, a collaborative approach is necessary; Sounds of Stow joins forces with Music Worcester, the Worcester Chorus, Salisbury Singers, the Mastersingers of Worcester, and the Children’s Chorus of Worcester, all under the baton of internationally acclaimed director Jack Goodwin. The performance will be at Worcester’s magnificent Mechanic’s Hall, 4:00 Sunday, November 12. Tickets are available through www.soundsofstow.org and www.musicworcester.org.
In addition to performing in national premieres, Naomi is a modern day renaissance woman. A life-long New Englander who turned 90 on Patriot’s Day this year, she grew up in Lincoln. After graduating from Smith College, she studied architecture at MIT, not a common undertaking for a young woman in the early 1950’s. She worked for several prestigious Boston architectural firms, and her design for refurbishing the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. won her a coveted National Honor award from the American Institute of Architects, the first ever granted a woman architect.
Singing has always been an important part of her life, from early experiences in church choirs, to participation in college groups and community choruses that offered a wide range of exciting repertoire, such as Chorus Pro Musica and The Sounds of Stow. The latter is currently in its 39th season under the direction of Barbara Jones. Naomi noted that it is the Director’s choice of repertoire, including ambitious works like the War Requiem, combined with rehearsals that she makes both fun and challenging, that accounts for her long participation with the group.
The War Requiem has an interesting and meaningful history. It was commissioned to commemorate the dedication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The original fourteenth-century cathedral was reduced to rubble on November 14, 1940 in one of the first and most devastating bombing raids of World War II. Faced with the prospect of rebuilding the cathedral, the decision was made to allow the ruins to remain just as they are, the most eloquent reminder of the ravages of war. The new structure is attached to these ruins, which are visible through a wall of glass. Britten was a life-long pacifist, and his mighty composition also links the old and the new, combining centuries’ old compositional techniques with unusual use of scales, rhythms and intervals. The entire work is appropriately based on a tritone, the sound referred to as “the devil in music” for its eerie dissonance – which finally finds resolution at the end of this 90-minute work. The chorus presents the text of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, enhanced by the soprano soloist and children’s choir (representing the vantage point of angels, accompanied by their own chamber orchestra.) Woven throughout are nine poems by British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), himself a pacifist who was killed in battle just one week prior to the Armistice that concluded World War I.
There is no more powerful depiction of war’s impact – on the individual, on society, on the earth itself – than the War Requiem. It remains as relevant today as when it was first performed, both at the consecration of the ruined yet restored cathedral, and at its American premiere in 1963. Naomi Newell’s presence that first performances as well as on this November 12th seems to complete a meaningful circle, and illustrates the lasting power of art to inform, illuminate and enhance our lives. And perhaps even engender thoughtful, meaningful action.
by Barbara Jones and Nina Huber
October 10, 2017