Fanfare Straining to Be Heard
Published: September 6, 2013 in The New York Times
Benjamin Britten was delighted to have been born on Nov. 22, the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians and church music. That the year of his birth, 1913, was also the centennial of Verdi and Wagner is something Britten never particularly remarked upon in later life.
Yet that coincidence has complicated things for Britten this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth in the town of Lowestoft on the coast of East Anglia in England. Celebrations of the Verdi and Wagner bicentennials have been plentiful around the world and will continue this fall. Inevitably, Britten, the most important figure of 20th-century British music, and, for me, among the handful of 20th-century giants, is being eclipsed by the dynamic duo of Italian and German opera.
England, of course, has been awash in Britten this year. The Britten-Pears Foundation, named for the composer and his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, has been overseeing a series of international events under theBritten 100 banner. In addition, Britten’s record label, Decca, has just weighed in, literally, with a deluxe, six-pound boxed set of his complete works, containing 65 CDs, a bonus DVD and several booklets of informative program notes.
In cooperation with Britten 100, Carnegie Hall is teaming up with other New York institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Philharmonic and Trinity Wall Street, to honor him. Carnegie Hall’s contribution, an extensive and smartly organized series, looks to be a high point of the coming season.
Britten’s landmark opera, “Peter Grimes,” which brought him international renown after its 1945 premiere in London, is the most ambitious offering of the festival. On Nov. 22, David Robertson will conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a concert performance of “Peter Grimes” at Stern Auditorium, starring the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey in what has become his signature role. He brings uninhibited dramatic intensity and a distinctive voice, at once lyrical and powerful, to his portrayal of Grimes, a hulking, isolated fisherman in a small Suffolk coastal village in England, part poetic dreamer, part dangerous misfit. Mr. Griffey sang the role to acclaim in the director John Doyle’s production that the Met introduced in 2008. This summer he again excelled as Grimes in a semi-staged performance of the opera at the Aspen Music Festival.
The Carnegie Hall series begins on Oct. 20 with a program offering Britten’s complete canticles. These five extended vocal works accompanied by various small groups of instruments were written over three decades. Each has a major part for a tenor, the one constant in a diverse set. The texts range from medieval mystery plays to poems by Edith Sitwell and T. S. Eliot. The tenor Ian Bostridge, who has championed these seldom-heard works, will perform them on this program at Zankel Hall, joined by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, the baritone Joshua Hopkins and the pianist Julius Drake. The program includes some Britten arrangements of Purcell songs, ideal companion works.
Three nights later, on Oct. 23, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under its new principal conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, performs Britten’s great Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, featuring Mr. Bostridge, a program that includes Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony.
There are also two smaller-scale events of great interest: the dynamic British-basedEndellion String Quartet plays works by Britten and Schubert (Nov. 8 at Weill Recital Hall); the impressive Brooklyn Youth Chorus sings a program called “Britten’s Young Voices” (Nov. 17 at Zankel Hall). And all afternoon on Dec. 14, there will be a “Discovery Day” exploring Britten’s life and works through panels, videos, a lecture and a voice recital.
When Carnegie Hall presents a festival, the goal is to keep events within a relatively concentrated time frame. The Britten celebration spans seven weeks this fall, with one exception: Robert Spano will conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Britten’s wrenchingly beautiful “War Requiem,” with Mr. Griffey among the vocal soloists, but not until April 30. The concert should be worth waiting for.
The institutional partners in Carnegie Hall’s celebration have come up with some enticing programs, especially Trinity Wall Street’s “Celebrating Benjamin Britten,” offering more than 20 concerts from September through December, including choral works, songs and pieces for children.
That Verdi and Wagner continue to loom large over the field of opera is clear from the Met’s programming in this year of three anniversaries. While the company honored Wagner with a major new production of “Parsifal” that opened in February and will celebrate Verdi with a new “Falstaff” in December, Britten is only getting a revival in October. Still, it’s a worthy one, his ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the Tim Albery production that the Met introduced in 1996 and last presented in 2002.
A version of this article appears in print on September 8, 2013, on page AR42 of The New York Times in the New York edition with the headline: Fanfare Straining to Be Heard.