Music Review: Resonance Ensemble sings Britten, incandescently

Celebrating composer Benjamin Britten's 100th anniversary, Resonance creates a birthday high


Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten's music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten’s music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.


Benjamin Britten would be 100 years old this year, and his music seems well positioned to outlive the powerful segments of American and European musical establishments that resolutely ignored him during the heyday of 20th century modernism. He’s long been popular in his British homeland, of course, and his operas are performed more than any other composer born in the 20th century. Reflecting its creator, Britten’s music has a certain toughness and resilience that defy expectations and categorizations.

In celebration, Portland’s Resonance Ensemble presented a selection of his choral and solo vocal works a week ago last Sunday, performing for the first time in the live yet intimate ambience of Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. They dove right in with the meaty “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” on a poem written at Britten’s request by W. H. Auden. Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon gave a short, lively talk on the backstory beforehand.

Auden was deeply attracted to Britten, and seems to have taken the opportunity for one last attempt to make Britten return the interest, using all his considerable poetic ability. He wrote a series of arresting images, initially on topic but eventually casting all pretense and double meanings aside, by turns flattering, pleading, scolding, and bullying.(“… O hang the head, / Impetuous child with the tremendous brain…”). But when have those tactics ever worked? Britten was hardly unaffected—the music is some of his finest, rich with harmonic and contrapuntal color, and often intensely expressive—but his inspiration was primarily the patron saint of music, whom he had long wanted to honor with a major vocal work (not least because he was born on November 22nd, St. Cecilia’s Day). He even chopped up Auden’s poem, extracting the last quatrain of the first section to make choruses for the following two sections, to keep the focus on Cecilia and, no doubt, his own unwavering artistic purposes. He and Auden became estranged soon afterwards.

The music stands apart, not only from mid-20th century high modernism but also much of later choral practice, which has avoided that modernism so assiduously as to fall into the bland and saccharine. There is nothing bland or saccharine in this work, whose delightfully off-kilter harmonies may be inspired by Stravinsky but are much refined through Britten’s own highly individual sensibility. The easy lyricism of the individual voices and the unabashed expressivity are also worlds away from any Stravinskian model. Still, it can’t be much easier to sing.

The Resonance Ensemble proved well up to the task and beyond. From time to time the music settled unexpectedly on some standard chord, and the group’s exquisite tuning created incandescent moments, even eliciting a hint of a smile from a few of the singers. And their pacing was excellent. In some performances, the first movement zips along as if overexcited by Auden’s opulent imagery. Resonance kept in mind its emotional subtext, and moved more thoughtfully and tenderly. They more than made up the difference in the fleet Scherzo! The beginning is exposed and difficult, but they soon steadied and took off. Even with all this preceding it, the final movement remains the emotional heart of the piece. The group threw their all into it, including several lovely solos, and the result was indeed moving.

One could bask a long time in the afterglow of such an opening. The following choral works were well chosen to fit the mood, and also to highlight Britten’s abundant sense of humor. Three selections from “Friday Afternoons,” written for children’s voices and piano, were as fun to hear as they must have been to sing. The first act finale from the opera “Peter Grimes,” in which the townspeople at the local pub engage in a rousing round of “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing” to cover their uneasiness about the loner Grimes, tapped into this same vein of rustic (if somewhat forced) good humor, while the pianist clattered away with just the right touch of menacing over-heartiness. If “A Hymn to the Virgin” didn’t show off such a distinctive personality, it was at least notable in showing how accomplished a composer Britten was even at 16.

In between the choral works, we were treated to a sampling of Britten’s many and masterful solo songs. There was a range of success in negotiating the tricky shift from choral to solo singing. Natalie Gunn was a nimble delight in “Be Kind and Courteous” from the opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an aria that bubbles over like champagne with its many runs and other feats of agility. It was slightly marred by the pianist, Hannah Brewer, not seeming to realize such feats aren’t likely to be accomplished at full volume. For the most part, however, having the piano lid on short stick worked well. Kudos to FitzGibbon for recognizing the piano for the partner it is in these fine songs, rather than relegating it to the background. Even so, at times I caught a whiff of the rehearsal room from Brewer’s accompaniments – bits of flat phrasing and mechanical timing left over from when the others needed a steadying influence. But this was her first outing with the group, and no doubt experience will soon smooth off the rough edges.

Other notably strong vocal performances included Maria Karlin’s, in the affecting W.B. Yeats folk song reconstruction “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and Brian Tierney’s in Michelangelo’s “Sonnetto XXX.” Tierney’s honeyed tone combined with caressing slow arpeggios from the piano (intensified by a half-step shift off the prevailing harmony) to send this love song straight to the heart. The climaxes around the two occurrences of “ciel”–heaven–were especially impassioned, even hair-raising. Britten wrote this and six other Michelangelo songs for his long-time partner, the renowned tenor Peter Pears, who seems to have found the interpersonal magic that eluded Auden.

As at the beginning of the program, the group skillfully negotiated Britten’s unique and often challenging harmonic language in the grand finale, “Cantata Misericordium” for choir and piano. But Britten’s setting of the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan is something beyond a choral ode, even a highly expressive one; it’s nothing less than an operatic scene. I understand the practical obstacles to including the original instrumentation–piano, harp, timpani and string quartet–but unlike the “Peter Grimes” excerpt, this scene seemed to lose something vital in the piano arrangement. And it would have benefited from the same lively, partially acted-out presentation the group gave the Grimes.

But these are quibbles stemming from the high bar set by the rest of the program. As the cantata gently undulated to a ravishing close, framing a clarion call for the audience to “go and do likewise,” one could not help feeling so inspired. Inspired, as well, to take in much more of Britten’s music before his centennial year ends. A perfect opportunity is just around the corner, in the Oregon Symphony’s upcoming performance of his magnum opus, the “War Requiem.” Anyone who, like myself, was left hungering for more by the Resonance Ensemble’s rousing concert won’t want to miss it.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and a board member of Cascadia Composers, who can’t resist pointing out he was born exactly 41 years to the day after Benjamin Britten. He leaves comparisons at that.

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