A rare all British NOVA Chamber Music Series The concert was an exquisite treat last weekend for the organization’s only gallery concert of the current season in the Great Hall of the GW Anderson Family at the Art Museum of Utah.
The music of Benjamin Britten, John Dowland and Henry Purcell fits perfectly into the decor of the museum, where four exceptional murals by local artists make the space resonate in an unforgettable way. Since the Fry Street Quartet became musical director of the series, British music has found its way into the repertoire, most notably the works of Britten. Judging by the performance and a warm reception by the audience, Britten’s case as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century (and perhaps the era’s best candidate for a permanent place in the repertoire) has been presented with impressive results.
Indeed, as Chris Myers’ superbly written program notes explain, “Few composers have been as conscious of their musical heritage as Benjamin Britten. So, as he took on the challenge of creating quintessentially English music for the 20th century, Britten looked, not to the continental classical tradition, but to his own country’s musical past.
Alternating between the three chamber works by Britten (1913-1976) that were featured, pieces by composers from much earlier eras brought stellar clarity to Myers – John Dowland (1563-1626) and Henry Purcell (1659 -1695).
Britten’s music is unsettling in its technical intricacies, a trait the composer has always managed to achieve to understated effect by drawing in both musicians and audiences with a shrewd sense of ease and simplicity. But, when executed with precision, the rewards are mesmerizing. Trumpeters Travis Peterson, Jeff Luke and Peter Margulies confidently set the agenda with Britten’s Marching Band for St. Edmundsbury, played in the mezzanine overlooking the Great Hall of the museum. The effect of three distinct melodic lines written in different keys captivates the ear in an unfamiliar new appreciation that elevates the fanfare from its usual expectation.
Dowland’s Five Sung Elizabethan Verse Extracts The Bookes of Songes or Ayres a flattering sound in the generous acoustics of the museum’s stage space. The balance between soprano Julia Gershkoff and lute player Cameron Welke was perfect in every excerpt.
The Dowland connection to Britten tears for viola and piano, the work immediately following the songs was unequivocal but rewarded for those who listened carefully. As Myers noted, the piece opens “not with a statement of the song, but by diving straight into variations that deconstruct the theme, each examining and expanding upon a fragment or isolated element, notes from a air glimpsed through a musical mist”. Here, Britten’s cosmopolitan and ecumenical genius shines in ethereal snatches of phrases that seem to presage the kind of musical imagery associated with Arvo Pärt or other Central and Eastern European composers. Viola player John T. Posadas and pianist Jason Hardink (former musical director of NOVA) gave an in-depth reading of the work.
The last two works — Purcell’s Fantasy on a note and that of Britten String Quartet No. 2 – were presented without interruption. The Purcell Fancy is an intriguing three-minute piece written in 1680 when the composer was 21 years old. Composed for five instruments, the piece revolves around a middle register instrument playing a single note throughout the music. In a 1946 recording of the piece with the Zorian Quartet, Britten played the second alto part, which was to maintain the pitch of the open strings throughout the composition. This drone in C major also appears in the quartet, which Britten wrote to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death.
Posadas joined the Fry Street Quartet on Purcell’s work as second violist, then slowly walked backstage in the final seconds of the work as he played the final bars of the buzzing note. This immediately linked up with Britten’s work. The Fry Street Quartet (Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violins; Bradley Ottesen, viola, and Anne Francis Bayless, cello) recently added this chamber work by Britten to the repertoire and the performance evoked the orchestral feel that encompasses this piece. The work is choppy in its emotional journey, but the cadences are jaw-dropping, with special kudos to Bayless. And, as Myers points out, regarding the finale, “no fewer than 23 explosive C major chords bring the bassline back into full conformity with the piece’s original key”.
Fry Street Quartet have cultivated a distinguished reputation for their interpretations of the Bartok String Quartets, but Britten’s recent additions to their repertoire are equally significant. In a previous season, they performed Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 during a gallery concert at the museum.
NOVA’s season ticket series continues its song theme with the game songs concert at Libby Gardner Hall at the University of Utah (March 13, 3 p.m.). This concert highlights NOVA’s unique brand of juxtaposed programming with two bookends being quintets representing composers from entirely different backgrounds: Sergei Prokofiev, a 20th century Soviet-era Russian composer, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor , the Anglo-African composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This concert will also feature two world premieres, a new untitled work by Stephanie Boyd and Counterplay by Luke Dahn. Boyd, a Michigan native who works in Manhattan, composes melodic music about women’s memoirs and the natural world for symphony and chamber ensembles. Its portfolio includes commissions from 37 countries. Dahn, who is on the faculty of music at the University of Utah, also has an extensive international portfolio of commissions and performances of his work. Dahn is also co-founder and co-artistic director of Ensemble Periphery, which debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2013, and sits on the board of the League of Composers/ISCM in New York.
For more information on tickets and the rest of the season, see the NOVA chamber music series website.