The prodigious trove of Benjamin Britten’s music needs no special occasion to warrant its performance, but for a while it appeared that musical San Diego was going to completely overlook the centenary of Britten’s birth on November 22. That is until Patrick Walders, Director of Choral Studies at San Diego State University, got on the phone and enlisted a few of his colleagues to pool their resources to mount an all-Britten concert on his birthday.
Walders also cajoled the powers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral to allow these outside musical groups to perform in the cathedral Friday evening, certainly a congruent venue since the composer is a pillar of the English choral tradition. Unlike his Edwardian predecessors, who confected diaphanous Evensong settings for cathedral worship, Britten avoided strictly liturgical music. But the spiritual depth of his sacred music based on a wide range of poetry that is not found in The Book of Common Prayer makes all those tony “Magnificat” and “Te Deum” antiphons pale in comparison.
John Russell brought his finely-tuned California State University—San Bernadino Chamber Choir to sing Britten’s familiar “A Ceremony of Carols,” a touchstone 20th-century work every chorister worth his or her salt has sung at least once. Russell’s account of “Ceremony,” vibrant, luminous and immaculately balanced, stressed both textual clarity and ensemble precision from his young singers. “Ceremony” alone would have been a generous contribution to Walders’ event, but Russell also sang the demanding tenor solo in another early Britten work, “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings,” with the San Diego State University Orchestra under the baton of Michael Gerdes.
Russell possesses the type of tenor voice for which Britten wrote copiously: supple, evenly focused throughout the range but subtly shading into glowing head tone at the top, and he used it with telling effect throughout the “Serenade.” Because Britten loved the poetry he chose and set every phrase with meticulous attention to its declamation, Russell’s ardent eloquence paid appropriate homage to both the poets’ muse and Britten’s lush yet mystical vision.[php snippet=1]
I particulary enjoyed Russell’s zestful melismas in the “Hymn to Diana” movement and the chilling pathos he evoked in “The Sick Rose,” that dark, dark poem by William Blake. In “Dirge,” his dramatic portamentos illuminated this ghostly litany, but he either needed more power in the climactic cadences or Gerdes needed to pull back his strings at that point. Overall, Gerdes coaxed a highly sensitive and thoughtfully layered performance from his university strings with a restrained but unmistakably lucid conducting technique. In the ensemble sections of the work, horn soloist Dora Skidmore sailed through her solos with power and confidence, but in the mercilessly exposed unaccompanied solos at the opening and close of the piece she struggled.
Walders’ cleanly disciplined San Diego State University Chamber Choir offered six dances from Britten’s 1953 opera Gloriana, a worthy set of choral moments that unfortunately lacks a compelling dramatic arc. This ensemble’s serene composure in the “Concord” movement unfortunately gave way to raucous imbalance and textual incomprehesibility in “Time” and “Country Girls,” although the cathedral’s reverberant acoustics contributed to some of these problems. In “Chorale After and Old French Carol” with a text by W. H. Auden, Walders’ choir proved more communicative.
Gerdes and the orchestra closed the concert with a different tribute, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” a nod to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. The conductor’s refined, dynamically nuanced approach served the music well.
While the San Diego music community thanks Patrick Walders for assembling this worthy Britten tribute, some of us are wondering why the County’s other choral organizations have apparently been asleep at the wheel during the Britten centennial year.