On Friday, to celebrate the centennial next week of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the Northwest Sinfonietta brought to Seattle a program that coupled two of the birthday boy’s major works with music by his compatriots Purcell and Elgar.
Christophe Chagnard, the orchestra’s founder and music director, opened the program at Benaroya Hall with a small but perfect piece by 17th-century master Henry Purcell, the Chacony in G minor for strings. It was played with rich tone and warm expression, and with a degree of vibrato that would doubtless have surprised the composer, but might well not have displeased him; it’s possible to be altogether too stuffy about such stylistic questions.
The hall was then darkened, with just stand lights illuminating the players’ music, for Britten’s Serenade. Written in 1943, and scored for tenor, horn, and strings, this is one of his most popular works – deservedly so, for it vividly exemplifies his knack for choosing to set poems that can accommodate the extra layer of meaning and magic that music is capable of providing. The Sinfonietta’s principal horn, Ryan Stewart, fashioned a robust and cleanly articulated account of his evocative and technically demanding part. The tenor soloist was Christopher Cock, director of choral and vocal activities at Valparaiso University, whose admirably clear diction and intelligent phrasing made the best possible use of a voice that could be described as somewhat monochrome in tone.
The other Britten piece was the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, his teacher. Composed at the age of 26, this is a decidedly astonishing youth work. By turns brash, imaginative, witty, and emotional, it established him at a stroke as a figure to be reckoned with on the international scene when it was premiered at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. A few smudged unison lines notwithstanding, the Sinfonietta strings dispatched Britten’s virtuoso string writing with impressive fire, and the quieter sections had an alluring luminosity of tone.
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Perhaps the greatest work on the program, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, was accorded similarly committed playing. Titled “The British Are Coming,” the whole concert had been something of a nostalgia trip for this London-born critic, and the feeling was heightened after the end of the official program with the importation into the Nordstrom Recital Hall of a touch of London’s “Last Night of the Proms” atmosphere.
Robin Twyman, Consul (Business and Government Affairs) at the UK Government Office in Seattle, came on stage to introduce and lead an audience sing-in of “Land of Hope and Glory,” part of Elgar’s 1902 “Coronation Ode.” Jubilantly and justly described by the composer as “a tune that will knock ’em – knock ’em flat,” it forms an indispensable part of the celebrations at the last night of the Proms music festival. Seeing members of an American audience rise to their feet to take part in this explicitly imperialist rite aroused in this Englishman a certain sense of irony – but it was fun, too, and provided a suitably festive conclusion to a musically rewarding evening.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org