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Friday, November 22, 2013

Concert Review: When Springtime Came in Autumn

The New York Philharmonic celebrates Benjamin Britten.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Benjamin Britten. Photo by Yousuf Karsh © Wikimedia Commons.
Today is the name day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. It's also the 100th birthday of British composer Benjamin Britten. To commemorate the latter occasion, the New York Philharmonic scheduled three performances of the composer's lesser known works this week: the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Spring Symphony. The performances were intended to provide a showcase for Paul Appleby, who would sing the tenor parts in each piece.

Before the concert started, music director Alan Gilbert took the stage with a microphone and a word of explanation. Earlier this week, Mr. Appleby had come down with an illness, rendering him unable to sing the demanding tenor parts in both of these works. Two singers would serve as his replacements for Thursday's concert, with tenor Michael Slattery singing the Serenade and Dominic Armstrong stepping in for the Spring Symphony. The latter also featured the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

The Serenade featured the solo horn of Philharmonic first chair Philip Myers, who divided his performance between his normal "double" orchestra horn, and a valveless "natural" horn for the work's Prologue and Epilogue. The latter instrument gave Mr. Myers problems in the first part of the work. His playing was squally, with flubbed notes and a tone that wavered between watery and over-blown. The hornist was more comfortable in the central passages (played on his regular instrument) and in the offstage Epilogue, played (with far better intonation and clarity) on the natural horn.

Far better was the tenor singing of Mr. Slattery, who injected ardent and bold tone into these six assembled poems. The texts of Tennyson, William Blake and Keats were performed with a fresh urgency, and the Middle English of "The Dirge" was subtly performed and moving. Mr. Slattery's voice weaved with Mr. Myers' horn and subtle accompaniment from the chamber-sized orchestra, seeming to hypnotize the audience with this performance of Keats' sonnet "To Sleep."

It is a mystery why the New York Philharmonic has waited fifty years to bring the Spring Symphony back to its stage. Vigorous and bursting with bright melodies and a robust, curiously British lust for life and the coming of Spring, this is one of Britten's most impressive creations. The work is a sort of Aldeburgh answer to Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a set of orchestral songs grouped around the impending arrival of Spring. (In truth, it's odd to perform this work in late November, but this was after all, a birthday celebration.

The first stern test for Mr. Armstrong came with "The Merry Cuckoo," the work's second movement. He bit cleanly into the bright melody and sprightly text, a setting of the poetry of Edmund Spenser. Soprano Kate Royal answered with "The Driving Boy," echoed by the children's chorus. Mezzo Sasha Cooke dominated the second movement, soaring through "Welcome Mais of Honour" and the gambol of "Out on the Lawn." Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Royal brought their voices together for "Fair and Fair", the most memorable song of the third part of the symphony.

All the forces came together for the complex finale, a performance that juxtaposes the poem "London, to thee I do present" with the medieval round "Soomer is i-coomen in". In the final pages, it was Mr. Armstrong who sang the last line, "And so my friends I cease!" as the mighty juggernaut of sound came shuddering to a halt under Mr. Gilbert's baton. For this singer who stepped up in this difficult part at the last minute, spring had indeed come in the middle of the fall.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.