Britten’s Music–Not Merely Chromatic but Polychromatic

United StatesUnited States 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