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Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday bash

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

Last weekend New York celebrated the centennial birthday of one of the worlds greatest composers in grand style. Starting with the New York Philharmonic and capping off the celebration on the exact date of his 100th birthday, Carnegie Hall celebrated with the St. Louis Symphony in a semi-staged production of his masterwork Peter Grimes.

The Philharmonic concert almost did not happen. At the eleventh hour, the tenor originally scheduled pulled out due to health reasons, leaving the administration scrambling to find a replacement. As maestro Gilbert noted, “It was not easy finding one single singer able or comfortable enough to sing both pieces on such short notice.” So they found three different tenors to take on Britten’s "Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31," and his "Spring Symphony, Op. 44," along with mezzo soloist Sasha Cooke, and soprano soloist Kate Royal, who made her Philharmonic debut.

The tenor to fill the first slot was Michael Slattery who sang the "Serenade" during Thursday and Friday’s concerts. This concert marked Mr. Slattery’s Philharmonic debut, and it could not have been more triumphant. Brilliantly acted, his performance was bursting with spirit as he trumpeted his arrival. He took his teary-eyed bows to an enthusiastic audience who welcomed him with thunderous applause.

The evenings second tenor was recent winner of the 2013 George London Foundation Vocal Competition, Dominic Armstrong. Before the concert, Maestro Gilbert also noted that Mr. Armstrong, “First laid eyes on the score [that] morning…but you’d never know...and I shouldn’t have told you that.” Indeed if he had not, we would have been none the wiser. Mr. Armstrong obviously posses quite an incredible gift of musicality to be able to learn such an intricate piece in such a short amount of time. A few minor errors here or there (purely in a poetic sense due to the lack of rehearsal time), he pulled it off splendidly; again to a warm and welcoming New York Audience.

Not to be outshone, our soprano and mezzo were also great highlights of the evening, however, I believe the drama behind the story of the replacement might have stolen some thunder.

The following evening at Carnegie Hall, a much darker drama would be played out on stage. Though this one was scripted.

The St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Maestro David Robertson, gave Benjamin Britten quite a birthday bash.

Peter Grimes was performed in a semi-staged fashion, but all of the action took place stage-right due to space constraints of the hall. This left the story feeling squeezed and condensed, when the huge–and hugely talented–St. Louis Symphony Chorus took up a great deal of space. The lightening also added to the confusion–as there was none, and the costumes lacked cohesion in both style and period.

But what we lost in theatrics we more than got back in vocal and musical talent.

Our Peter was played by American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who also filled in with the Philharmonic for their final concert of the two Britten pieces, singing in both. What more can be said about the man who has made this a calling card of his? He plays Grimes with a subtle touch of madness that builds until he almost literally explodes at the very end. Ellen was played by American soprano, and budding superstar, Susanna Phillips. Though she had many, her greatest moment came while singing of her embroidery. Alan Held played role of Balstrode, a retired merchant skipper, with a great, booming voice, and fine-tuned theatricality. A few other characters of note were Liam Bonner as Ned, Meredith Arwady as the brassy Auntie, and her two nieces, Summer Hassan and Leela Subramaniam.

The other leading player for this even was our orchestra which, dare I say it, rivaled that of our own Philharmonic, and the great drama added by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.

For more information about the New York Philharmonic, click here.

For more information about Carnegie Hall, click here.

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