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

62410-Britten-Pears.jpg

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.