Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sympathetic to the voice, sensitive to texts, and pleasant to the ear - CONCORA presents choral music of Britten and Rorem

On February 10, CONCORA, the all-professional choir in which I sing, will mark the 100th birth anniversary of English composer Benjamin Britten, and the 90th birthday of American composer Ned Rorem, with a concert of “Modern Masters.” (Details on venue, tickets, etc., are at the end of this post.)

I’ve posted several items about this concert, including some of my program notes, fascinating insights from Ned Rorem, and more. You can read it all here:

Here’s the introductory portion of my program essay for the program.


The juxtaposition in 2013 of the 100th birth anniversary of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and the 90th birthday of American composer and writer Ned Rorem (b. 1923) offers an opportunity to celebrate these two master composers, each of whom has contributed significant — and magnificent — works to the classical canon, and especially to the choral repertoire.

In describing a program that features the works of two major composers, it’s tempting to seek parallels in their lives and work. There are similarities: Both were precocious in music from an early age, and were encouraged by their families to study music. Both enjoyed fruitful careers, were in demand as composers and concertizers, and received prestigious awards and commissions. Each composed works for a wide variety of ensembles and genres, from solo songs to oratorio, and from chamber music to symphonies. An outspoken dedication to pacifism (which nearly cost Britten his freedom at the beginning of World War II) informs the creative impulse of both composers.

Their differences are perhaps more relevant to an understanding of their music, particularly their settings of sacred texts. Britten called himself a “dedicated Christian,” and his life companion, the tenor Sir Peter Pears, referred to him as “an agnostic with a great love for Jesus Christ.” Musicologist Graham Elliott suggests that Britten’s religious feelings were “fired by certain texts,” and Britten himself said that he was “certainly a Christian in his music.” Rorem, a self-proclaimed atheist, said about his sacred choral music: “Half my entire musical output is for chorus, about a hundred pieces, and half of those in turn are based on so-called sacred texts. Yet if I do not believe in God, I believe in Belief, and in the great works which the notion of God has inspired.”

Most importantly to those of us who love choral music, both Britten and Rorem found joy in writing music for vocal ensembles, and choral music comprises large proportions of their total production. Their choral works are sympathetic to the voice, sensitive to their texts, and pleasant to the ear.

Both composers demonstrate exquisite taste in selecting the words which inspire their choral settings. From a young age, Britten enjoyed reading the works of “a catholic choice of poets,” and was keenly aware of the rich musical potential of words and language Throughout his career, he showed remarkable ease and skill in setting texts of various styles, periods, and genres; he seems to have sought out texts that were not set by other composers.

In his notes to Sing, My Soul: Choral Music of Ned Rorem, CONCORA’s critically-acclaimed CD recording of Rorem’s choral works, Maestro Coffey wrote, “Ned Rorem’s love for words is manifest… He selects great texts and then wraps them in fine melodies, tunes which ennoble and illuminate. One needs to explain nothing [about his music]; the enrichment comes in the hearing.” Rorem said that his “aim toward poetry [is] to intensify rather than to reinterpret.” The All Music Guide to Classical Music asserts that Rorem has “an affinity for and sensitivity to the nuances of the English language equaled by few composers since Benjamin Britten.”

Rorem must be delighted with that comparison to Britten. In correspondence with Maestro Coffey pertaining to a Rorem-Britten program given by CONCORA in 1993, Rorem said that he “worships” Britten, and described Britten as “a staunch, if not intimate, colleague for forty years.” In a published essay on Britten, Rorem said that “Benjamin Britten’s musical language… has always seemed warm and contagious, open to every dialect of mind and soul.”

Both composers embrace tonality and an essentially diatonic approach, even as other contemporary composers have worked in (and in many cases, rejected) atonal methods. For both Britten and Rorem, however, “tonality” never equates with “bland;” on the contrary, the choral works of these two masters are a treasure trove of rich modality, sweeping lyricism, and unabashed elegance. Music critics often cite the transparency of Britten’s music; this would have gratified him, for as he said, “Music for me is clarification; I try to clarify, to refine, to sensitize... My technique is to tear all the waste away; to achieve perfect clarity of expression, that is my aim.”

To complement the works of Britten and Rorem that anchor this program, Maestro Coffey has chosen works from other masterful contemporary composers of choral music, including those who are well-known (John Rutter, Eric Whitacre, Alice Parker, Jean Berger), and others who may be lesser known but who are no less deserving (Robert Morris, Kevin Siegfried, György Orbán, Paul Mealor).

Program notes prepared for CONCORA by Grace Notes Writing.
© 2013 Grace Notes Writing. All rights reserved.
Re-use, distribution, or re-publication in whole or in part is expressly forbidden and is punishable by law.
If you're interested in using these program notes, please contact me via the comment function below.

“Modern Masters”
Monday, February 11, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
South Church, 90 Main St., New Britain, 06051CONCORA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the 90th birthday of Ned Rorem with a concert featuring works of these two musical masters of choral composition. Features Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia and selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year. Masterful works from other composers such as Eric Whitacre and John Rutter add to the celebration.
General admission $25, students $10.
(860) 293-0567

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