New World chamber series closes Britten centennial year with a late masterpiece

By Lawrence Budmen

Amanda Crider performed Britten's "Phaedra" with members of the New World Symphony Sunday afternoon.

Amanda Crider performed Britten’s “Phaedra” with members of the New World Symphony Sunday afternoon.

The New World Symphony offers some of the most interesting chamber music programming in South Florida and Sunday afternoon’s performance at Miami Beach’s New World Center was no exception. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, the concert offered rarities from the bookends of the iconic British composer’s creative life. His first published composition and final vocal work were paired with a sextet by the teenage Felix Mendelssohn.

The concert’s centerpiece and most substantial offering was Britten’s cantata Phaedra, composed in 1975 and premiered the following year just months before the composer’s death. With a text drawn from Robert Lowell’s translation of Jean Racine’s play based on Greek myth, Phaedra was written for the English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. The score is a series of monologues by the heroine, wife of Theseus, who has fallen in love with her stepson and is driven to madness and suicide. With great ingenuity, Britten cast the fifteen-minute score in the mold of a Baroque cantata, the vocal part supported by a chamber orchestra of strings, percussion and harpsichord.

Phaedra is a score of such power and complexity that it is difficult to believe it is the work of a terminally ill composer. Plagued by continual heart problems and a stroke that left his right hand disabled, Britten had to employ fellow composer Colin Matthews to notate his late works.

Despite its short  duration and spare textures, Phaedra is poignant and heart-wrenching. The heroine’s solos range from fierce declamation to extended lyrical arioso with the recitative sections accompanied by solo harpsichord and cello in the manner of a Bach cantata. Britten’s musical language is pungently modern, the spirits of Schoenberg and Stravinsky strongly felt. Opening with repeated ascending fifths, the string writing turns agitated with color and drama underlined by an expanded percussion battery. As the heroine dies of poison, the long-limbed string textures give way to solos for violin, viola and cello, the softly fading coda a final masterstroke.

From her first bold proclamation, Amanda Crider was a mesmerizing protagonist, her superbly clear diction and warmly burnished timbre riveting attention. Recently heard with Seraphic Fire and the Master Chorale of South Florida, the mezzo-soprano intensely conveyed the heroine’s madness and anguish. Crider’s shining upper register soared in Phaedra’s final confession to her husband and death. Her delivery of the line “chills already dart along my boiling veins and squeeze my heart” was infused with aching sadness. New World conducting fellow Joshua Gersen led a finely paced performance, the strings playing with nuanced rubato and traversing fast passages at whipcrack speed. Nina Zhou was the elegant and sensitive harpsichordist.

The concert opened with Britten’s Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932). The work of a nineteen-year-old student at the Royal Conservatory of Music chafing under the conservative tutelage of John Ireland, the score resounds with pungent harmonies and brief, skittering figures. Ultimately conveying more promise than fulfillment, the Sinfonietta is both an interesting prologue and footnote in Britten’s output.

The Sextet in D Major for piano and strings is the work of the fifteen-year-pold Mendelssohn. Scored for the unusual string complement of one violin, two violas, cello and double bass, the work’s broadly romantic opening melody bears the composer’s distinctive touch while the ornamented piano line suggests Chopin. Aya Yamamoto was an agile keyboard soloist, fusing bravura sweep and subtlety. The five string players brought splendid articulation and big-hearted exuberance to this charming score by one of music’s great wunderkinds.

The New World Symphony’s chamber series continues 2 p.m. January 26, 2014 with oboist Eugene Izotov and violinist Ani Kavafian joining New World fellows in works by Nielsen, Mozart and Beethoven. nws.edu305-673-3331.

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Mon Dec 23, 2013
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