The English clarinetist and public relations maven Brenden Guy has resurrected his Curious Flights music series after a year's sabbatical. The opening concert last Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory was devoted to British music from the first half of the 20th century, and it was splendid in its variety and choice of unfamiliar pieces by familiar composers. Brenden is in the blue tie above center, bowing after a sweet performance of Herbert Howell's 1919 Rhapsodic Quintet, surrounded by a quartet from One Found Sound, violinists Christopher Whitley and George Hayes, violist Danny Sheu, and cellist Laura Gaynon.
The concert started with the 1929-1931 Songs Sacred and Profane by John Ireland, who was the teenage Benjamin Britten's drunken, mildly abusive composition instructor at London's Royal College of Music during the same period. The two composers never got along personally, but had a grudging respect for each other's work. Soprano Julie Adams sang the six songs with a large, pretty voice that she needs to learn how to scale down for small recital halls. She was accompanied by pianist Miles Graber.
The first half of the concert ended with a trio of acapella songs by Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. They were beautifully performed by the St. Dominic's Schola Cantorium under Music Director Simon Berry. I had never heard them before, but they were so good it almost made me want to go to one of St. Dominic's Solemn Masses to hear them in action again. My Spirit Sang All Day by Finzi to a poem by Robert Bridges and RVW's Valiant for Truth from a poem about death by John Bunyan bookended one of the late, great Auden/Britten collaborations, The Shepherd Carol, which I didn't even know existed. Auden wrote the poem while they were both in the U.S. fleeing the onset of World War Two, and suggested it be set as either a jazz tune or a folksong, and Britten chose the latter for a 1944 BBC commission after he returned homesick to England. Soloists from the chorus sang four nonsense verses, such as:
If I'd stacked up the velvet,followed by an exceptionally lovely chorus to the words:
and my crooked rib were dead,
I'd be breeding white canaries
and eating crackers in bed
O lift your little pinkie,.
and touch the winter sky.
Love's all over the mountains
where the beautiful go to die
After intermission, we were treated to Arnold Bax's 1929 Sonata for Two Pianos, played by Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi in a rambunctious and exciting performance. I have listened to both pianists for years during rehearsals as accompanists for various groups including the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and Opera Parallele. They were almost always the most interesting musical performers in the room.
Hearing them play together for the first time, in unfamiliar but intriguing music, was a complete treat. I hope they team up again, and their performance of the Bax made me want to listen to all his music, including the seven symphonies.
The final piece was Britten's Opus One, Sinfonietta, for five strings and five winds in a stirring performance conducted by John Kendall Bailey that underlined how gifted the composer was at a freakishly young age. In the Humphrey Burton biography of Britten, he explains the British music scene in 1931:
[William Walton]...seemed to bring a much-needed breath of modernism into a musical scene dominated on the one hand by Elgar and the Brahms imitators (the Parry–Stanford school) and on the other by the "English pastoral" composers led by Vaughan Williams and Holst, with Delius, Bax and John Ireland closely following behind. Sir Michael Tippett recalls that "Elgar was already an older figure, and the general critical view at the time was that Vaughan Williams was the way that English music should go–it was backed by the whole establishment, especially The Times."Saturday's concert was a good reminder that many of the outmoded British composers from both schools wrote some gorgeous, interesting music, and that yes, Britten surpassed them all in a blaze of genius.