Composer ahead of his time If Benjamin Britten were still alive — he would have turned 100 on Nov. 22 – the world likely would have been richer by many more evocative, rhythmically poetic works such as “War Requiem” and “A Ceremony of Carols.”
But even after his death at 63, the English composer made an enormous impact on 20th-century music and social justice issues such as pacificism and homosexuality – and that impact can be felt in the 1,700-plus concerts being held worldwide in honor of his centenary.
This weekend, Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia join the celebration, with the Northwest Sinfonietta playing two of Britten’s most famous chamber works in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup, and Seattle Pro Musica singing his choral music in Olympia.
“I’m a huge fan (of Britten),” says Karen Thomas, director of Seattle Pro Musica, which will repeat its “Britten+” Olympia concert in Tacoma next February, as well as take other Britten works over the next few months to concert halls and schools. “But even if I weren’t, I would still be doing it. He’s such an important composer. If I were to say who was the top all-round musician of the 20th century, it would be Britten.”
Even Britten’s birthday in 1913 was significant: Nov. 22 is the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. As a child, Britten lived up to the expectations, beginning composing at 6 and piano studies at 8, and receiving a musical dictionary as a ninth birthday present. After composer Frank Bridge took him on as a student at 13, Britten went on to create more than 100 works, including “Peter Grimes” (the work that put English opera back on the map), the devastating “War Requiem” (Britten was a registered conscientious objector during World War II), symphonic and instrumental works, and numerous songs and solos written for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. (The two lived together for four decades in an era when homosexuality was banned, performing together often.)
Britten also founded the Aldeburgh Festival, reinvented music education with his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (which is still regularly played at kids’ symphony concerts) and was the first composer appointed to Britain’s house of peers.
“He was a fantastic conductor, a really fine pianist, a composer, an entrepreneur,” Thomas says. “He did it all, in a way comparable to how composers always did prior to the 20th century, when people started to specialize.”
What Seattle Pro Musica will be exploring this weekend and over the next few months are Britten’s numerous choral compositions. December will see Seattle performances of “A Ceremony of Carols,” and next March the demanding “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” They also performed the “War Requiem” with the Seattle Symphony this summer. As a result, the choir is the only group in the area to receive an award from Britten’s prestigious Britten-Pears Foundation – $8,000 to help mount concerts and school workshops – plus another $12,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
This weekend at St. John’s Episcopal in Olympia, it will sing a cappella Britten works juxtaposed with works by contemporary American composers to show influence, similarity and difference. On the program are the “Five Flower Songs,” with counterparts by Morten Lauridsen (“Chansons des Roses”) and Eric Whitacre (“Flower Songs”). The “Hymn to the Virgin” is contrasted with “On a Dark Night” by Tacoma composer Sheila Bristow and Kay Rhie’s “Kassia’s Hymn.”
“He was a very practical composer,” Thomas says. “He wanted to write pieces people could play. ... It’s so singable, he really understands (text) and rhythm. ... And his compact compositional style, like the four-note motif of “A Boy Was Born,” gets tremendous mileage.”
The Northwest Sinfonietta, meanwhile, will play two of Britten’s best-known chamber works: the “Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge” and “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,” a work with achingly beautiful settings of English poetry like the bone-chilling medieval dirge or Blake’s haunting “Elegie.”
For many horn players, it’s a dream opportunity.
“I don’t always enjoy being in the spotlight,” says soloist Ryan Stewart, the Sinfonietta’s principal horn. “But I enjoy doing it with someone else.”
And while most of the piece isn’t hard, there are a couple of super-high notes, and the lilting ode to Diana runs pretty swiftly.
“That’s where I spent most of my time on this,” Stewart says.
The concert, featuring tenor Christopher Cock, also includes work by other British composers: Purcell’s “Chacony in G minor” and Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro” and “Pomp and Circumstance” march no. 1, to which the audience is invited to sing “Land of Hope and Glory,” in true British style.
“Although for their time (Britten’s works) pushed the boundaries, they were still very listenable,” Thomas says. “He loved good melodies.”
Benjamin Britten celebration
Who: Seattle Pro Musica
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: St. John’s Episcopal, 19th Avenue Southeast and Capitol Way, Olympia
Tickets: Entry by donation
Also: Reception afterwards; Free childcare
Other performances: Seattle concerts of “A Ceremony of Carols/A Boy Was Born,” Dec. 7 and 14 at Town Hall and Bastyr Chapel; Tacoma concert Feb. 9, 2014.
Information: 206-781-2766, seattlepromusica.org
Find other Britten centenary events, plus audio samples and an interactive timeline, at britten100.org
What: “The British Are Coming”
Who: Northwest Sinfonietta with Christopher Cock, tenor, and Ryan Stewart, horn
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Seattle), 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Tacoma), 2 p.m. Sunday (Puyallup)
Where: Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma; Pioneer Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian, Puyallup
Information: 866-833-4747 (Seattle); 800-291-7593 (Tacoma); 800-838-3006 (Puyallup); nwsinfonietta.org
Britten coming up
What: The Esoterics’ “Profana” and “Sacra,” choral works by Britten
When: Nov. 22-24 and Dec. 6-8 in Shoreline and Seattle
What: Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Who: Pacific Lutheran University opera department
When: Jan. 23-26
Information: plu.eduRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org