Festival Miami closes with a bountiful Britten feast

By Lawrence Budmen

Festival Miami offered a wide-ranging tribute to Benjamin Britten Tuesday night.

Festival Miami offered a wide-ranging tribute to Benjamin Britten Tuesday night.

The final classical program of Festival Miami’s thirtieth anniversary edition on Tuesday night offered a fascinating overview of the music of Benjamin Britten. Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the British composer’s birth, the program concentrated on less familiar scores from Britten’s teenage efforts to his last years.

With the combined faculty and student forces of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, tenor Tony Boutte and musicologist Karen Henson hosted a well-paced sampler of Britten’s vocal and instrumental works at Gusman Concert Hall.

The Overture from Britten’s 1969 Suite for Harp suggests Gallic and Latin influences, traditional glissandos and arpeggios spiced by strumming in the manner of a guitar. Deborah Fleisher’s skillful performance combined lightness of touch and line with adroit pyrotechnics.

The 1953 coronation opera Gloriana may be Britten’s neglected masterpiece. A large-scale setting of the troubled relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, the opera features an elaborate ballet sequence in the second act ballroom scene. These “Choral Dances” combine the spare polyphony of English madrigals and folk-inspired strophes with a mastery that recalls Purcell at his Baroque zenith. Karen Kennedy led the Frost Chorale in a splendidly precise performance, the high sopranos and strong male voices spanning a vast dynamic spectrum. Boutte’s high lyric tenor blended wonderfully with the lovely choral sonority, supported by Fleisher’s well-balanced harp accompaniment.

In Twelve Variations on a Theme, the work of the seventeen-year old Britten, fragments of piano melody are subjected to rather uninspired elaborations. Chopin, Liszt and a Bachian fugue make appearances in a score that is clearly the product of a young composer still trying to find his voice. Anastasiya Naplekova’s performance combined requisite virtuosity with finely shaded dynamics.

Canticle III is a strikingly original setting of Edith Sitwell’s wartime poem Still Falls the Rain: The Raids for tenor, piano and French horn. An austere and measured, recitative-like vocal part contrasts with the changing meter of the instrumentation. Jagged Stravinskian rhythms spark the interludes, the horn at times roaring with harshness, at other moments mellow and serene. Boutte’s clear, effortless upper register gleamed against  Richard Todd’s superbly executed wide horn leaps and the solemnity of Alan Johnson’s keyboard progressions.  This was a worthy revival of a deeply moving work that reflects Britten’s lifelong pacifism.

The Frost Opera Theater presented the Tytania-Bottom sequence from Act II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a preview of the vocal department’s November program of Britten opera scenes. This Shakespeare adaptation is pure enchantment, conjuring the fairy world in appropriately ethereal tones. Alissa Rocca’s light soprano soared through Tytania’s coloratura flourishes and melodic flights while Carl Dupont’s deep, finely grained bass-baritone commanded the weaver-turned-donkey’s stentorian declamation.

The Elegy for solo viola is a brief teenage essay in Mahlerian angst. Emily Jones, winner of the Frost School’s viola competition, brought restraint and nuanced articulation to the score’s melancholy aura.

While doing research in England this past summer, Boutte discovered the Three Small Songs (1930) which received their first public performance at this concert. Based on texts of sixteenth and seventeenth century poets, these modest settings range from pastoral and elegiac to the bucolic sparkle of a Hymn to Pan. Boutte, brought sweetness and simplicity to these vignettes, ably seconded by the deft flute and string undertones and whirling winds and brass of the Frost Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sleeper.

Suite on English Folk Tunes – A Time There Was, Britten’s last completed orchestral work, offers sprightly country dances and rhapsodic  melodies prior to a haunting, soft finale, the only hint that this is the work of a dying composer. Sleeper did full justice to the score’s tuneful strains and suggestions of darkness, splendidly realized by the student players.

Boutte, who studied with Britten’s tenor muse and life partner Peter Pears, concluded the concert with the American premiere of the restless, harmonically spiced Everyone Sang (a World War I poem by Siegfried Sassoon) and two of Britten’s folksong settings. In “O waly, waly,” an unadorned vocal line is matched by spare orchestration bereft of the soupy Hollywood sound.  Boutte spun the rapid tongue-twisting words with the élan of an English balladeer

The UM Frost Opera Theater presents Britten and Beyond in Great Britain 7:30 p.m. November 14 and 16 at Clarke Recital Hall featuring scenes from Paul Bunyan, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 305-284-2400; music.miami.edu/concerts.

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Wed Oct 30, 2013
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