Hidden Gem: Picking Britten’s brain


SoCal’s ongoing centennial festivities bring the thought-provoking Nocturne to the Palisades

In case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of composer Benjamin Britten‘s birth.  He was undoubtedly one of the finest and most influential composers of the 20th century, and left quite a legacy, with an extensive output that includes works for orchestras and ensembles of all shapes and sizes; a string of operas, starting with Peter Grimes, which did much to re-establish opera in English as “a thing”; and an oeuvre of vocal works that runs the gamut of human emotion.  Throughout the coming season, performing organizations of all shapes and sizes have been offering a plethora of tributes, including a standout event this week:

Tomorrow night (Friday), Music at St. Matthew’s in Pacific Palisades kicks off their new season with one of Britten’s most powerful vocal works:  Nocturne, performed by the St. Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra and tenor Jonathan Mack (pictured).  Mack is a favorite in Southern California, and rightfully so: he is that rare singer who has firmly established himself as a valuable teacher (he’s currently on the faculty at USC and Chapman), but has maintained a truly active career as a soloist and opera performer, with a biography that reads like a litany of some of the greatest collaborators of our age.  His reputation for a fine instrument and profound interpretive gift is well-deserved, and Mack is a natural choice for this particular work, full as it is with artistic and intellectual challenges for voice and ensemble.

The Nocturne combines texts from several of the UK’s most celebrated wordsmiths: Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson… This pastiche approach extends to the orchestration, piecing and stacking together textures and styles to create a unique and surprisingly cohesive work, full of the multiplicity of modern experience.  It explores, both directly and indirectly, what it means to be an artist in a world full of war and grief, and reveals Britten’s own struggle with his artistic identity in vivid color.  This masterwork has inspired another project from the composer’s homeland, a documentary film (right) from Tony Palmer, in honor of the anniversary.  Palmer has made several films about or related to Britten, and knew Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner, personally, so he has many fascinating insights and tales to tell.  This interview speaks to this work specifically, calling Nocturne “a pocket guide to the composer”, and also discusses Britten’s fear of night and the resulting importance of carefully choosing the texts.  Palmer even shares a cute (unrelated) anecdote about a meeting with Shostakovich.

The concert at St. Matthew’s offers a nicely balanced program (a testament to the versatility of this orchestra and their director, Thomas Neenan).  The evening will also include Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Dwayne S. Milburn’s Four Water Scenes for Clarinet and Orchestra, for a momentous start to their new season.

St. Matthew’s Season Opener
with Jonathan Mack

Friday, October 11, 8pm

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
1031 Bienveneda Ave., Pacific Palisades
Map & Directions

Tickets $35, including free refreshments at intermission
Call (310) 573-7422 or email music-info@stmatthews.com

Calendar listing        Music at St. Matthew’s        Jonathan Mack’s website


Learn more:

Visit the website for the Britten-Pears Foundation, or their packed Britten 100 site.

Check out Tony Palmer’s centennial film tribute on DVD.

Need a recording for your library?  Here’s an easy search.

While you’re at it, check out the new CD from Music at St. Matthew’s: Music from the Left Coast, with the Soweto Gospel Choir of South Africa

Of course, there’s more on YouTube, and a Britten audio sampler online.

Other performances of Britten’s work:
Pasadena Master Chorale: A Portrait of Benjamin Britten, 10/12
Repertory Opera Company’s Albert Herring starts 10/19
Pacific Opera Project’s Turn of the Screw is coming in January
LA Opera’s Billy Budd sails in February & March

Find plenty more at Britten 100/LA

Full disclosure: This feature is not a paid advertisement, but an editorial pick designed to encourage attendance and arts patronage. This post does include affiliate links that allow us to make a very small sum from purchases resulting from clicking.

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