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PREVIEW: Unearthing A Hidden Britten Gem

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Kirk Choir and Friends of Music Orchestra; Timothy Howard, conductor
Judith Siirila, soprano; Micheal Smith, tenor
Frances Nicholson and Ray Quiett, narrator
Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.; Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m.
Pasadena Presbyterian Church (MAP)
Free Admission (voluntary offering)
Information: www.ppcmusic.org

Britten-Pears

Peter Pears (left) sings in a performance conducted by Benjamin Britten. The cantata, The Company of Heaven, contains A Thousand Thousand Gleaming Stars, the first piece of music that the composer wrote for the tenor who would become his life partner. Pasadena Presbyterian Church will present The Company of Heaven on Saturday, which is the 75th anniversary to the day of the work’s premiere on the BBC. Photo from the Britten-Pears Foundation.
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(Full disclosure: I’m a member of Pasadena Presbyterian Church, sing in the Kirk Choir, and am giving the preconcert lecture. Thus, as the late, great columnist Molly Ivins was wont to say, you can take this post with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, if you are so inclined.)
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Anniversaries are quite popular in the classical-music world and the year 2013 shapes up as one of the biggest. The birth bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner will receive the lion’s share of the focus next year, but 2013 also marks 100 years since English composer Benjamin Britten was born Lowesoft, Suffolk on Nov. 22, 1913.

Without discounting the stature of Wagner or Verdi, Britten is at least equally as significant as those two because the Englishman’s compositional genius stretched over many genres besides opera. In addition to Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and his other operatic output, Britten also composed extraordinary song cycles, several symphonies and other instrumental works, and a large body of exemplary choral work, as well.

One of Britten’s earliest choral pieces was a cantata, The Company of Heaven, which was written for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1937 — when the composer was just 23 years old — and debuted on September 29, 1937.

On Saturday, September 29, 2012 — 75 years to the date of that inaugural broadcast performance — Pasadena Presbyterian Church will again perform this superb choral work on the subject of angels. The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the church’s striking neogothic sanctuary, located at Colorado Blvd. at Madison Ave. in the Playhouse District of downtown Pasadena.

The Sept. 29 performance will be preceded at 7 p.m. by a preconcert lecture delivered by Pasadena Star-News Music Critic Robert D. Thomas (that would be yours truly). Admission is free; a voluntary offering will be taken. Free parking is available and the church is accessible to the mobility-impaired.

The concert will open with Britten’s Simple Symphony, which was written in 1934 but uses themes from piano works that Britten composed when he was a child.

The Company of Heaven is scored for choir, two soloists, multiple narrators, organ and string orchestra. Timothy Howard (pictured left) will conduct the church’s Kirk Choir, soprano Judith Siirila, tenor Micheal Smith, narrators Frances Nicholson and Ray Quiett, and the Friends of Music Orchestra in Saturday’s performance.

In the era before television, the BBC often commissioned music, theater plays and other works to be broadcast over its network, and The Company of Heaven was one of those commissions. The date of its premiere (Sept. 29) was Michelmas Day on the liturgical calendar in honor of the archangel Michael, so the texts that R. Ellis Roberts compiled were particularly appropriate for that feast day.

Despite its unusual subject, innovative framework and beautiful music, the cantata fell into obscurity after its inaugural broadcast. A suite from the cantata was performed in 1956 but the entire work wasn’t performed again until June 10, 1989 at The Maltings, Snape as part of the 1989 Aldeburgh Festival.

Philip Brunelle, who led that performance, conducted the U.S. premiere on Dec. 8, 1989 in Minnesota. The Kirk Choir presented what was probably the West Coast premiere of The Company of Heaven on Nov. 18, 1990.

Several of us who sang in that 1990 performance at PPC have always wanted to bring it back to our repertoire. When I realized that the 75th anniversary of the work would be a Saturday, which is the night when we perform most of our concerts, it seemed like a natural fit and, fortunately, Dr. Howard agreed.

This concert is one of nine events on the church’s “Friends of Music” concert series, which runs through June 2013. Additional information on the series and the church’s music program can be found at www.ppcmusic.org.
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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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