A Touch of the Proms for Northwest Sinfonietta’s Britten Celebration

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Britten, and Elgar: Christopher Cock (tenor), Ryan Stewart (horn), Northwest Sinfonietta, Christophe Chagnard (conductor), Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle 15.11.2013 (BJ)

Purcell: Chacony in G minor
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings (quartet and orchestra)
Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

The Tacoma-based Northwest Sinfonietta celebrated the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth with a program that coupled two of the birthday boy’s major works with music by his compatriots Purcell and Elgar.

Christophe Chagnard, the orchestra’s founder and music director, opened the program with a small but perfect piece by the 17th-century master Henry Purcell, the Chacony in G minor for strings. It was played with rich tone and warm expression, and with a degree of vibrato that would doubtless have surprised the composer, but might well not have displeased him; it’s possible to be altogether too stuffy about such stylistic questions.

The hall was then darkened, with just stand lights illuminating the players’ music, for Britten’s Serenade. Written in 1943, this is one of his most popular works—deservedly so, for it vividly exemplifies his knack for choosing to set poems that can accommodate the extra layer of meaning and magic that music is capable of providing. The Sinfonietta’s principal horn, Ryan Stewart, fashioned a robust and cleanly articulated account of his evocative and technically demanding part. The tenor soloist was Christopher Cock, director of choral and vocal activities at Valparaiso University, whose admirably clear diction and intelligent phrasing made the best possible use of a voice that could be described as a tad monochrome in tone.

The other Britten piece was the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, his teacher. Composed at the age of 26, this is a decidedly astonishing youth work. By turns brash, imaginative, witty, and emotional, it established him at a stroke as a figure to be reckoned with on the international scene when it was premiered at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. A few smudged unison lines notwithstanding, the Sinfonietta strings dispatched Britten’s virtuoso string writing with impressive fire, and the quieter sections had an alluring luminosity of tone. My only reservation here concerned the rather too long gaps Chagnard left between variations, undermining the work’s sense of unity somewhat.

Perhaps the greatest work on the program, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings was accorded similarly committed playing. I did find the program annotator’s statement that “After Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 England went without an internationally recognized composer for vocal music until Britten was born” a little tendentious. Even if, for obvious reasons of descent, you can’t count Handel, this is surely discourteous to Elgar, whose oratorios won him acclaim in Germany even before his career really blossomed in England.

Titled “The British Are Coming,” the whole concert had been something of a nostalgia trip for this London-born critic, and the nostalgia was heightened after the end of the official program with the importation into Seattle’s Nordstrom Recital Hall of a touch of London’s “Last Night of the Proms” atmosphere.

Robin Twyman, Consul (Business and Government Affairs) at the UK Government Office in Seattle, came on stage to introduce and lead an audience sing-in of Land of Hope and Glory, part of Elgar’s 1902 Coronation Ode. Jubilantly and justly described by the composer as “a tune that will knock ’em—knock ’em flat,” it forms an indispensable part of the celebrations every year at the last night of the Proms music festival in London. Seeing members of an American audience rise to their feet to take part in this explicitly royalist rite aroused in this Englishman a certain sense of irony—but it was fun, too, and provided a suitably festive conclusion to a musically rewarding evening.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.

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