News Column

Great Britten: Celebrated English composer subject of a massive centenary event at ISU

October 20, 2013


Oct. 20--NORMAL -- Once you've been to Britten, there's no going back.

Just ask Karyl Carlson, director of choral activities at Illinois State University, site of the country's largest centenary celebration for English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76).

Nearly 20 years ago, Carlson made her first epic journey to this captivating musical landscape.

The challenging, but exhilarating, route taken: a performance of Britten's magnum opus, the famously daunting "War Requiem, Op. 66."

The year was 1994.

"I sang it with (celebrated choral director) Robert Shaw at Carnegie Hall," Carlson says of the widely praised event, which she now designates "a defining moment in my life."

In the next-day review, The New York Times didn't dispute Carlson's impression from the stage: "It was a sublime event, sure to live in the memory."

Indeed, it has: "I've been patiently waiting ever since for the chance to bring this work back into public view," says Carlson, an accomplished soprano who will be conducting the "War Requiem" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in ISU's Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall .

Though more than a half-century old, the formidable work has never before been performed on a Twin Cities concert stage, says Carlson.

It's the apt opening volley in an intense, multidisciplinary event that continues through Oct. 27 and is attracting Britten scholars and performers from around the world.

The multidisciplinary part means that not only will Britten's life and work be celebrated through music, but also theater, dance, art and film (see accompanying story for highlights open to the public).

"It ('War Requiem') is just a very special work to me, with its message and poetry so poignantly felt, especially knowing the current state of political events is no better now than it was when he composed it," says Carlson.

Britten, a lifelong pacifist and among the more famous conscientious objectors during World War II, composed the piece in 1961-2, at the height of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

It debuted in May 1962 to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England, built to replace the 14th-century original, destroyed in a WW II bombing raid.

Britten combined traditional Latin texts from the Mass for the Dead and poems by fellow pacifist Wilfred Owen, killed in action during World War I.

He then scored the near-90-minute work for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, backed by a huge choral contingent, including full chorus and boys' choir, two orchestras (full and chamber) and organ.

Featured in the ISU performance will be tenor Justin Vickers, soprano Michelle Vought, baritone John Koch, a festival orchestra comprised of the ISU Symphony Orchestra and faculty instrumentalists, and a festival chorus featuring the ISU Civic Chorale, Belle Voix women's ensemble and alumni performers.

"It's very difficult," assures Carlson, "because it requires very large choral forces, and the music itself is very difficult, rhythmically intricate, sometimes harmonically challenging, based on tri-tones, which though not atonal, can be unsettling."

For nearly two decades, Carlson bided her time, waiting for the moment to strike.

Then along came 2013, the centenary of Britten's arrival, and, perhaps just as significantly, a new member of the ISU music faculty: acclaimed tenor and Britten scholar Justin Vickers.

Carlson likes to call him, in the best sense of the term, "a Britten nerd"; Vickers would prefer we view him as a "Britten specialist."

"Justin is an expert ... an incredible source," says Carlson. Two years ago, the process of combining his expertise with her longstanding goal converged into what we will see as "Benjamin Britten at 100: An American Centenary Symposium."

"For me, the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth only gets to happen once," says Vickers, who'll be taking the challenging tenor role in Thursday night's performance -- the one performed on the famous 1963 Decca recording by Britten's life partner, both privately and professionally, Sir Peter Pears.

"The two men cannot really be discussed separately, since they are inextricably linked ... Britten composed 12 leading tenor roles specifically for his voice, which is a great boon for me as a tenor," says Vickers. "It's a wonderful repertoire that offers a wealth of riches. I add new Britten song cycles to my own repertoire every season."

In addition to the presence of two such passionate Britten devotees on its faculty, there's another sound reason for Britten's centenary being observed in the Midwest:

While living in the U.S. between 1939 and 1942, Britten made his American debut performing the U.S. premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D in Chicago with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, an earlier entity not connected with the current Twin Cities/Springfield-based symphony (which, for the record, performed Britten's most famous work, "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," as part of its season debut two weeks ago).

After that successful premiere in January 1940, Britten returned to Chicago "numerous times," notes Vickers.

Though the four-day symposium is rife with committed Britten scholars and confirmed musical believers, Carlson hopes that the wealth of public events, crowned by Thursday's "War Requiem," will bring a greater sense of recognition at that level.

"He's one of the major composers of the 20th century," she says. "He wrote an incredible amount of iconic choral music, as well. He really is near the top."


Britten at large

Following are the major public components of the four-day, multi-disciplinary "Benjamin Britten at 100" national symposium at Illinois State University. Box office number for ticketed events is 309-438-2535; the complete symposium schedule is at www.finearts.illinoisstate,edu/music/britten 100/.


"War Requiem, Op. 66," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall ($10-$15): The centerpiece of the symposium featuring soprano Michelle Vought, tenor Justin Vickers, baritone John Koch, ISU Symphony Orchestra, faculty instrumentalists, Civic Chorale, Bell Voix women's ensemble and alumni singers.

Box Lunch Britten, noon Friday and Saturday, University Galleries (free): Britten works by musicians/singers from Midwestern universities and more. Box lunches are available for $12.

Britten's Choral Delights, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, CPA Concert Hall: Morning and afternoon workshops and performances on Britten's choral masterworks, from "A Hymn to St. Cecilia to "Choral Dances" (open to public; registration information the symposium website, see above).

Benjamin Britten and the Art of Song, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, CPA Concert Hall ($10-$15): A showcase of Britten's song cycles featuring ISU, IWU and U of I faculty soloists.


"The Habit of Art," 1 p.m. Oct. 27, Kemp Recital Hall ($10-$15): Midwestern premiere of Alan Bennett's 2009 play imagining a reunion between Britten and the muse/mentor of his youth, poet W.H. Auden, after two decades of estrangement.


"'Peter Grimes' on Aldeburgh Beach," 7:30 p.m. Friday, Caterpillar Room of State Farm Hall of Business ($10-$15): U.S. premiere of film record of 2013 production of Britten's name-making 1945 opera, shot during this year's Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Arts on the Aldeburgh Beach, with the North Sea as backdrop.


Britten's Ballet & More, 11 a.m. Oct 27, CPA Concert Hall ($10-$15): A performance of Britten's music set to dance, featuring regional guest artists and ISU faculty performing, including the 12-year-old Britten's 1925 "Five Walztes (sic)" and Five Choral Dances from "Gloriana,"


"Britten: Practitioner, Modernist, Inspiration," through Nov. 10, University Galleries (free): An exhibit of selected Britten ephemera, including autographed scores and historical photographs.


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