Despite this week's Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance, I respectfully call bullshit on Carlos Kalmar. Whenever I heard the Oregon Symphony's music director refer to his brilliant program Music for a Time of War, the maestro claimed his musical selections were not meant to be interpreted as political. I couldn't disagree more. C'mon... a more fair and balanced line-up might have at least included Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory" or Papa Haydn's "Military Symphony" or Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Instead of simplistic, black-and-white, romantic notions of war draped in patriotic glory, the listener encounters a more difficult and nuanced 20th-century musical landscape of existential questions, gruesome descriptions, defiant submissions and cold dissonance. There are moments of shock within this album to be sure, but they are distinctly devoid of awe. The first half of the set list features a beautifully anxious triptych of musical compositions that blend so seamlessly, they sound like a five-movement symphonic suite written by a fictitious Charles Adams-Britten. (It's worth noting these works were purposefully strung together without applause during live performances; the lack of clapping on the recording captures the contiguous spirit of the real deal.) And supplying music for the harrowing second act? The decidedly non-fictitious Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This massive and profound program begins with "The Unanswered Question," composed by transcendental pacifist Charles Ives. Keeping an unwavering vigil throughout, the softest congregation of strings you've ever heard remains unfazed -- despite the repetitive interruptions of an inquisitive offstage trumpet and an increasingly disruptive gang of woodwinds. Principal flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen quickly sets the standard for technical excellence and emotional clarity -- a benchmark the entire band meets throughout the recording. Even though Ives' composition is by far the shortest piece in this collection, it paradoxically opens up a musical window that gazes out onto eternity and timelessness.
The haunting questions persist and the magical tones of "The Wound-Dresser" begin. Left coast composer John Adams created this piece by wrapping his music around the words of Walt Whitman. And oh, what words: "the breathing rattles... the bloody stump... gangrene... so sickening, so offensive." The frequently gruesome text is a written reminder of the poet's time as a military hospital attendant during the Civil War. Sanford Sylvan, the baritone prophet, offers a trance-like interpretation of Whitman's words, and as Jun Iwasaki's ethereal violin weaves around his voice, the entire orchestra is elevated to a higher emotional plane. The musical reading escalates with Jeffrey Work's searing trumpet crescendo, until the tone mercifully changes with the phrase some are so young and a final remembrance of soldiers hugging Uncle Walt and kissing his bearded lips.
Created in 1940 as a commission from Japan to celebrate their dynasty's birthday, Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem was unsurprisingly rejected by the empire because of its markedly non-celebratory nature. Not only did the 26-year-old British composer entitle each of his three movements with references to divine judgment, guilty tears and eternal despair, he even dedicated this musical provocation to the memory of his parents instead of say, oh, I don't know... Japan?! A life-long peace-monger, Britten undoubtedly knew what he was doing: Flipping the bird across the Pacific. A couple years later, he would even tell his own government to eff off, refusing to fight for the Allies by registering as a conscientious objector. With ominous bass drumbeats introducing the piece, Britten's disdain for war is reflected throughout the brief but powerful score, but nowhere so in-your-face as in the middle section, where a shrill flute mocks an attempted cavalry charge that soon descends into a whipped march towards death. A comfortless prayer for eternal rest closes this bitter requiem, thus bringing an end to a tri-fold musical meditation on human existence, war, suffering and futility.
Much of Ralph Vaughan Williams' music can be described as stereotypically English: proper, tranquil, benignly impressionistic. (You know, the kind of stuff a classical radio station might play during the 2 to 3 a.m. hour.) Quite surprisingly then, the Oregon Symphony does nothing less than open up the gates of hell with RVW's "Symphony #4." It is fierce and terrifying music where comforting, easy moments are fleeting, and the closing movement is a revelation every time I hear it. Sounding at times like a pseudo-triumphant Danny Elfman soundtrack, a blazing whirlwind of strings and Mahlerian brass anchor the entire band in technical precision. This is death-defying stuff that never gets old. Within the final 30 seconds, a seemingly exhausted orchestra chugs back to life one last time before spitting out several hammerblows to the heart, ending in a definitive burst of absolute self-destruction.
Perhaps the most accurate description of the Oregon Symphony's breathtaking album comes from Mr. Vaughan Williams himself, who supposedly remarked on his symphony: "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant." It's music that is hard to like, but utterly necessary. This blogger won't speculate on why Maestro Kalmar insisted on the apolitical nature of this program -- ultimately, it ain't important. I'll just say that for me, whether intentional or not, Music for a Time of War serves as a powerful acoustic journey of peaceful resistance and questioning of power. It certainly deserves this Grammy nomination, just as sure as it deserves to be listened to again and again and again.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more