In a year of bicentennial celebrations (Verdi and Wagner), the centenary of British composer, Benjamin Britten has not passed unobserved but has certainly been less flamboyant. In April, the UNCSA‘s Fletcher Opera Institute produced a striking staging of Owen Wingrave, an opera originally written for television in the late 1960s.

Two days after Britten’s 100th birthday (November 22, 1913), as we paused before embarking on a week of thanks-giving, the faculty members of this country’s first state-supported arts university paid tribute to the iconoclast Briton whose pacificism has been a beacon to many and whose compositions have been an inspiration to many more. Rare is the child whose introduction to the orchestra did not include Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra or the string-player who did not count Britten’s Simple Symphony among his youthful favorites. The world of opera is infinitely enriched by Britten’s operas, from Peter Grimes to the Rape of Lucretia. And Verdi’s monumental Requiem meets its peer in Britten’s War Requiem. (For conductor Marin Alsop‘s comments on War Requiem on NPR the day before the birth anniversary, click here.)

Much of Britten’s output as a composer – he was also an exceptional pianist and distinguished conductor – is aimed at the recital hall and thus composed for musical intimacy. The Sunday afternoon recital in the exquisite Watson Recital Hall on the UNCSA campus brought us several songs as well as the striking Sonata in C for Cello and piano.

But the concert opened with the cunningly composed “Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury” (1959) for three trumpets, positioned antiphonally in the hall to start and reuniting on stage for the recapitulation and stunning coda. First Wade Weast (Dean of the UNCSA School of Music) opened from the east with an easily recognizable overtone legato arpeggio based on “F,” followed by Ken Wilmot‘s more military solo tattoo in “C” from the west, whereupon UNCSA trumpet faculty member Judith Saxton played her lyrical solo in “D” from the stage. Finally, these three solos were played simultaneously, followed by a coda uniting the three in the same rhythm to produce a powerful conclusion. Although usually (and perhaps most effectively) played on valve trumpets, Britten composed the work as though it were to be played on ancient, valve-less instruments, befitting the Magna Carta Pageant for which it was composed.

James Allbritten is more familiar to audiences as a distinguished conductor of opera and of orchestral works than as a tenor, but he possesses a lovely tenor voice too rarely heard. His warm Italianate voice was perfectly suited to Britten’s settings of Seven Michelangelo Sonnets, five of which were programmed on this concert. They served as a reminder that Britten, a man of principle and unashamed of his convictions and choices, openly espoused a homosexual lifestyle – as did sculptor and poet Michelangelo Buonarotti. (For film of Britten accompanying tenor Peter Pears in some of this music, click here.)

A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 was written in 1947, shortly after Britten and his lifelong partner, Peter Pears, for whose splendid tenor voice Britten composed many works, moved into Aldeburgh, his home for the rest of his life and the site for his projected music festival. Set for mezzo-soprano to texts of Blake, Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph, and John Philip, these gentle songs (excepting “A Charm,” whose text, by T. Randolph, shows more exasperation and frustration than the gentle soothing usually expressed in a lullaby) were warmly sung by UNCSA faculty member Janine Hawley. This writer was not the only listener to be lulled almost to sleep by the irresistible pianissimo of the last song, “The Nurse’s Song.”

Britten wrote Five Canticles over a quarter of a century (1947-74). They are of a spiritual nature, but not using religious scripture. Loosely based on the Song of Songs (Solomon’s Songs) of the Old Testament, Canticle I: “My Beloved Is Mine,” Op. 40 (1947), extols the rapturous adoration of the Lord. Glenn Siebert, tenor on the faculty of the UNCSA, sang this song, set to the text of 17th century poet, Francis Quarles, with the intelligence and clarity we have come to expect of this fine artist. With extraordinary diction and shading of his voice, the ambivalent nature of the text was made manifest.

The concert ended with an instrumental work, the Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 (1947), written for Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Iron Curtain crasher of the 1960s who went on to become the Music Director of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.  Cellist and UNCSA faculty member, Brooks Whitehouse, humorously introduced this piece from the stage, and deftly demonstrated some of the innovative techniques Rostropovich’s staggering technical prowess opened up to Britten, such as pizzicato in both hands at once and glissandi in thumb position. (Hear part of this sonata as performed by Rostropovich and Britten here.)

The first movement starts as a tentative dialogue between cello and piano, becomes angry at moments and ends with a series of overtones played on the “C” string, incorporating a soothing modal or whole-tone scale from time to time. The second movement is a Scherzo recalling the Britten’s youthful “Playful Pizzicato” from the Simple Symphony, completed at age 20. The lovely and moving Elegia yields to the boisterous Marcia: energico which makes striking use of ponticello (playing nearly on the bridge), which yields an edgy, thin and somewhat eerie quality to the tone, ending with a musical whimper. The fifth movement is an energetic Moto perpetua using both sautillé and ricochet (bouncing and rebounding) bowings in lively succession to create a light-hearted yet energetic movement which comes to an abrupt but satisfying conclusion. The large audience cheered both cellist and pianist Alison Gagnon, who played the difficult part Britten had written for himself!

A word about the “silent” partner in recital concerts of this type, the accompanist! Whereas the audience focuses on understanding the meaning of the words in songs (the bulk of today’s concert), the accompanist deals with all the musical details the composer has incorporated into the song to lend mood and substance to the text. As such, it is easy to neglect the importance of the “accompaniment.” However, in a sonata such as Opus 65, the interplay and dialogue between both players creates the wholeness, the gestalt of the musical thought. Ms. Gagnon is frequently called upon to exercise this partnership which requires an impeccable technique, profound musicality and great versatility. She has them all!

Note: For much more about this year’s Britten celebrations, click here.