Saturday, September 29, 2012

Boyish Benjy Britten at New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their season with a pair of early pieces by Benjamin Britten, including the 1934 Simple Symphony which he wrote at the age of 20 after finishing an unhappy stint at London's Royal Conservatory of Music. In a letter to a Welsh composer friend, Britten wrote, "I cannot write a single note of anything respectable at the moment, and so--on the off chance of making some money--I am dishing up some very old stuff (written, some of it, over ten years ago) as a dear little school suite for strings--You see what I have come to...!" It was charming and well-played, but even though I am something of a Britten fanatic, never need to hear the symphony again because the composer's distinctive voice was missing. Bartok's mature 1939 Divertimento which followed in another well-played performance, was something of a tonic.

After intermission, we heard Britten's first great song cycle for strings and solo voice, the 1939 Les Illuminations, from a series of poems from the 1870s by Rimbaud. Sitting nearby at the concert was Patrick Vaz, and I asked him to explain who Rimbaud was to my friend Charlie in 30 seconds or less, which Patrick did very well, explaining that the wild teenage poet broke all kinds of conventions in tradition-bound French poetry, while carrying on a love affair with the older poet Paul Verlaine, before leaving France and literature for the Horn of Africa where he was some kind of adventurer/merchant before an early death.

The surreal poems tend to appeal to the young and visionary. Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith were all acknowledged fans, and when W.H. Auden introduced his friend Benjy to the poet, Britten was entranced. He set a pair of the poems to music for a soprano friend Sophie Wyss before taking off on a trip to North America with his tenor friend Peter Pears. (The two are seen above on Jones Beach in Long Island, where they repaired for a while to the family home of Elizabeth Mayer, a German Jewish refugee who essentially adopted them.) The three years in America were a homesick, mostly unhappy time for the pair other than the fact that they fell in love and became partners for the rest of their lives.

Rather like Rimbaud, who wrote the poems while darting from London to Brussels and elsewhere, Britten finished the songs early in their North American trip between stays in Toronto and Grand Rapids and New York. The cycle evolved into an homage for his tenor lover Pears, though it can also be sung by a soprano, as it was here by Melody Moore above. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg stated at the beginning of this concert that Moore's rendition was "definitive," but it was not. It's the Pears version, which is on disc with the composer conducting, that is definitive and everything else is just interpretation. I didn't much care for Ms. Moore, with her slight hint of shrillness and many strange faces trying to act out the poems, but the chamber orchestra was something else. Their contribution was close to "definitive," and the music has been swirling around my head for the rest of the week, with the strange, idiosyncratic tenor of Pears inserted over New Century's superb string playing.

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