"Britten 100" concerts mark composer's centenary
by Matthew Schlecht for Vocal Area Network
Posted October 30, 2013

Benjamin Britten -- photo by Roland HauptBorn in England on November 22, 1913, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) made his mark with celebrated operas like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, along with a wide array of symphonic and choral works, and became one of the most well known composers of the 20th century. From your local orchestra hall to pop culture, like the soundtrack to Wes Anderson's recent film Moonrise Kingdom, Britten's works can be found in familiar and unexpected places. One hundred years after the composer's birth, Britten's music is alive and well. "I think Benjamin Britten is one of the truly great composers of the 20th century," says Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic. "Britten was a progressive cultural figure too," states the Britten-Pears Foundation, an organization committed to the legacy of Britten and his partner of nearly 40 years, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986). "[He was] ahead of his time on issues including pacifism, homosexuality and the role of artists in their communities."

Britten 100 marks the composer's centenary with more than 2,000 events in 50 countries around the globe, including several right here in the New York City area. Here's a roundup of some of the best events this fall.

"Concerts at One: Britten" and "Moonrise Kingdom" at Trinity Wall Street, Broadway at Wall Street, November 2013, various dates; most performances free--check schedule for details.

Trinity Church is featuring both familiar and rarely performed Britten works in a weekly series, "Concerts at One: Britten." November 7 brings a quartet playing Lachrymae, Holiday Diary, Suite for Violin and Piano, and Sonata for Cello and Piano led by Director of Music and the Arts Julian Wachner and featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Inspired by the Moonrise Kingdom film, there will be a special presentation by the Trinity Youth Chorus on November 22 at 6 PM of Britten's works for children including The Golden Vanity, Children's Crusade, Friday Afternoon and Missa Brevis in D Major, Op. 63. Melissa Attebury conducts.

"Britten 100 Concerts" at Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and 7th Avenue

Three upcoming performances at Carnegie Hall demonstrate the wide scope of Britten's work. On November 8 the Endellion String Quartet performs Britten's Three Divertimenti and String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25. Then, on November 22, the St. Louis Symphony will power through Peter Grimes, the tragic tale of a fisherman, one of Britten's masterpieces. And on December 14, Britten biographer Paul Kildea will be the keynote speaker at an afternoon performance that introduces a new documentary about the composer and features a song recital.

"Alan Gilbert Conducts Britten," Avery Fisher Hall, Broadway at 65th Street, November 21-23; tickets $29-$99.

The New York Philharmonic honors Britten's centennial year with three special concerts led by Music Director Alan Gilbert. While many may choose to perform works like Britten's popular opera Peter Grimes, the Philharmonic has decided to pay tribute to the composer with the more rarely performed Spring Symphony, which Gilbert says is "an absolutely amazing work." Among its unexpected delights it is noted for the inclusion of a cow horn in the fourth section. The program also features Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Additional performers include hornist Phillip Myers, soprano Kate Royal, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Paul Appleby, the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Melodia Women's Choir offerrs "Visions of Peace," November 23 at Holy Apostles Church in Chelsea; November 24 at West End Collegiate Church on the Upper West Side. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 in advance; available at Brown Paper Tickets.

Melodia Women's Choir will help to kick off the holiday season with their performance of Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, conducted by Cynthia Powell, along with other works, as part of their "Visions of Peace" concert. The 1942 A Ceremony of Carols was composed by Britten during a trans-Atlantic ship voyage from the U.S. to Britain. According to liner notes on the piece, it was inspired in part by The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, a book of medieval poems by Gerald Bullett, and the text includes medieval and 16th-century poetry. Originally composed for women's voices and harp, it is perhaps Britten's most beloved choral work, and no holiday season is complete without hearing it. The lyrical harp solo at the center of the work will be performed by harpist Rita Costanzi. Additional concert performers include pianist Taisiya Pushkar, percussionist Barbara Merjan and the Transfiguration Quintet.

Britten's opera fans will also want to note that general admission tickets for the BAM February 2014 performances of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera's Billy Budd, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, directed by Michael Grandage, and performed with the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Chorus, go on sale December 9, 2013 (BAM members December 2, 2013).

Editor's note: Here's information about another significant upcoming Britten performance.

The Central City Chorus and its music director, Phillip Cheah, in collaboration with the Adelphi Chamber Orchestra, proudly present "Music Magnifical and Mighty," an evening of works celebrating the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. The program will feature Britten's rarely performed early work The Company of Heaven and the US premiere of Psalm 23 for chorus and strings by David Matthews, who early in his career was an assistant to Britten. Performances will be held at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on West 87th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in Manhattan on Saturday, December 7 at 7 PM and Sunday, December 8 at 3 PM.

Matthew Schlecht is a writer and editor in New York City.