A composer’s centenary often offers a chance to reappraise or re-savor his works. In the case of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Seattle has enjoyed some terrific reminders in the past year of what a varied and virtuosic composer he was.
At Seattle Symphony, we’ve had performances of his Cello Symphony and War Requiem. Seattle Chamber Music Society has offered a number of smaller works, including his dazzling Sonata in C for Cello and Piano. Even Spectrum Dance Theater added to the mix when it featured Britten’s three Cello Suites in live performance as the score for Donald Byrd’s “Love” last year.
This weekend sees two local chorales shine a light on the British composer’s work for voices.
Seattle Pro Musica’s concerts feature “A Ceremony of Carols” (1942) and “A Boy Was Born” (1932), along with pieces by other composers, including Conrad Susa’s “Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest,” written in 1992 as a companion piece to “A Ceremony of Carols.” The Esoterics will take an all-Britten approach, packaging well-known works (“A Boy Was Born,” “A Hymn to the Virgin”) with more rarely performed items (“Christ’s Nativity,” “Chorale after an Old French Carol”).
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Esoterics director Eric Banks sees a virtue in exploring some of Britten’s lesser-known works.
“If only masterpieces are performed,” he said in a phone interview last week, “you don’t really get an appreciation of … the challenge of being a composer. In your life as an artist, you come up with art that might, if you’re lucky, be a masterpiece. … I wanted to tell a more complete story.”
Digging deeper into composers’ oeuvres “makes them a bit more human,” Banks feels. “I don’t think it’s meant to sully the composer’s reputation. I think it’s meant to make them seem more whole.”
Britten himself had a hand in casting some of his finest work into obscurity, Banks notes. The Britten-Pears Foundation (tenor Peter Pears was Britten’s lifelong companion) has hundreds of works in its archives that Britten considered “juvenilia,” including some written in his 20s that he withdrew almost immediately after writing them.
“He was probably disenchanted with the rehearsals that he heard,” Banks theorizes. “But they work wonderfully as choral works. … We’re lucky that the Britten-Pears Foundation made it possible to perform these works. They had a bit more foresight than even the composer did.”
Such pieces may be technically tough to sing, but with their unexpected harmonic turns and melodies they’re sublime to the ear.
Karen P. Thomas, director of Seattle Pro Musica, remarks: “Britten was very clear himself that he was always writing music for people to perform — always had in mind the particular performers he was writing for.”
Seattle Pro Musica’s “Ceremony of Carols” program caps a yearlong engagement with Britten’s work, starting with SPM’s collaboration with the symphony on War Requiem.
“Ceremony,” which draws its text from short English poems dating back as far as the 14th century, is “very much an English piece,” Thomas says. “He actually wrote it when he was coming back to England from the United States, and he was quite homesick.”
Like Banks, Thomas sees Britten’s centenary as a chance to revisit a composer she loves.
“Britten has been a favorite of mine ever since I was in high school,” she says. “For people who know his music, we already know how great it is. I think there are certainly people in a much more general audience who might not be as well-versed, and so I’m hoping that one of the things they’ll hear, if they’re going to a lot of concerts this year, is the incredible variety in his music. … He was just a master of anything he set his hand to.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org