Britten’s Music–Not Merely Chromatic but Polychromatic

14/06/2013

 Britten and Gjeilo: Soloists, Seattle Choral Company, Freddie Coleman (conductor), Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, 8.6.2013 (BJ)
Britten: Chorale after an Old French Carol; Hymn to St. Cecilia; Cantata Misericordium
Gjeilo: Dark Night of the Soul, Luminous Night of the Soul

As a pertinent appetizer on the weekend before the Seattle Symphony’s first performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 49 years, Freddie Coleman and his Seattle Choral Company devoted the first half of their June 8 concert to choral works by the composer.

Britten’s music is rarely just what it seems to be. Even when the context of his vocal works is relatively sanguine or positively cheerful, there tends almost always—the folk-song arrangements and the Spring Symphony perhaps excepted—to be a certain undercurrent of doubt, of anxiety, beneath the language in which such positives are expressed.

The Cantata Misericordium, or Cantata of Mercy, commissioned to celebrate the 1963 centenary of the Red Cross, and set to a Latin text by Patrick Wilkinson, is no exception. You might expect a retelling of the story of the Good Samaritan to leave an altogether upbeat impression. But the music writes for chorus, tenor and baritone soloists, string quartet and orchestra is imbued with subtle shadings of harmony that leave at least this listener thinking not so much about the virtue of the Samaritan’s action as about the pervasive human moral shortcomings that made his action necessary.

There was, I am glad to say, nothing ambiguous about the success of Coleman’s performance. Backed by polished choral and orchestral work, and by an excellent string quartet comprising Steven Creswell, Cecilia Archuleta, Thane Lewis, and Jacqueline Robbins, the two vocal soloists brought compelling intensity to their roles. I have admired baritone Charles Robert Stephens’s performances in music ranging from Carissimi and Marc-Antoine Charpentier to Verdi, and his strong projection of text and music in the role of the Traveler demonstrated yet another convincing area of stylistic sympathy. The Samaritan was a tenor previously unknown to me, Eric Neuville, and he too shaped his line with eloquent grace.

The evening had opened with two other Britten works, equally well performed: the Chorale in which the composer fitted his W.H. Auden text to a pre-existing French carol, and another Auden setting the Hymn to St. Cecilia, where again the expressive sunshine is by no means unclouded. The excellent soloists in the latter were sopranos Elizabeth Johnson and Kari Kalway, alto Shannon Marsh, tenor Michael Kelly, and bass Jay Cook.

It would have been hard for any second-half program to match the musical level of the Britten works, and in the event, while I admire Coleman’s quest for contemporary composers to champion, I found the two interrelated pieces by the composer-pianist Ola Gjeilo (born in Norway in 1978) somewhat lacking in individuality. There were some sensually attractive moments in Gjeilo’s choral settings of texts by St. John of the Cross and Charles Anthony Silvestri, but their style suggested effective film music rather than anything genuinely viable in the concert hall.

Once again, Coleman’s chorus delivered dedicated performances, though I could distinguish hardly a word of the texts—the composer’s fault rather than the conductor’s, I think. Erin Patton in the first piece and Alexandra Denby in the second sang their soprano solos well, Lisa Bergman projected the somewhat tediously minimalist piano part skillfully, and in the Luminous piece Nathan Whittaker contributed a cello solo that did indeed achieve that quality.

And one more pleasure of the evening was to read the exceptionally intelligent, informative, and well-written program notes by chorus member Gregory Bloch.

Bernard Jacobson

Comments

Comments are closed.

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Usher Hall 2019-2020 Orchestral Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2020 Ring Cycles __________________________________
  • NEW! Ex Cathedra’s 50th Anniversary Season in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Geneva Grand Théâtre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Carnegie Hall 2019-2020 Season Highlights __________________________________
  • NEW! Venus Unwrapped: Kings Place’s Year-Long Focus on Women Composers __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ANGELA GHEORGHIU IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Loki’s Madam Butterfly can be seen in Alton and London this September __________________________________
  • NEW! The Joys of the Marlboro Music Festival: Chamber Music’s Best-Kept Secret __________________________________
  • NEW! MATTHEW BOURNE’S ROMEO AND JULIET IN CINEMAS FROM 22 OCTOBER __________________________________
  • NEW! CELLIST JOHANNES MOSER IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! CHORUS MASTER STEPHEN DOUGHTY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • REVIEWED! Ron Howard’s Pavarotti in Cinemas 13 July (Preview) and Nationwide (15 July) __________________________________
  • MULTI-FACETED MUSICIAN JOY LISNEY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • ‘MUSICAL MAGIC’: AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST HENNING KRAGGERUD __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month