Fusing Music and Poetry on YouTube

Emmanuel Music has reconfigured its three-part Britten Chamber Festival into a streaming format, with virtually all the pieces and personnel planned for the cancelled in-person concerts. Benjamin Britten’s chamber music deserves to be heard more often. His vocal writing is on a par with any other composer. Inspired by Henry Purcell and Baroque form, Britten fused music and poetry with a simplicity and clarity that communicates directly with audiences.

Britten’s Five Canticles, written for one, two, or three singers (always a tenor, written with Peter Pears in mind) and with varied spare accompaniment – a piano, a harp, and a piano and horn, highlights the series. Classic canticles usually a feature a hymn, but Britten gave the canticle form new meaning when he set a poem to music, ultimately including T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and “Still Falls the Rain” by Edith Sitwell. Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, is almost a miniature opera, with dramatic gestures and strongly-formed characters. Each canticle becomes a miniature cantata with several constituent movements that also reflect elements of the song-cycle form. The marriage of word and music that examines the human condition falls naturally into Emmanuel Music’s tradition, as does the cantata-song cycle form.

Streamed concerts make us think differently about how we present the music; because shorter segments seem to work best, we’ll alter the original three-concert format. Once we have everything recorded we’ll decide how best to package each concert segment. It’s actually nice to have that flexibility. We envision three concerts presented as a festival over the weekend of December 11th -13th on Emmanuel Music’s YouTube channel.

We’re grateful that Emmanuel Music has been able to pivot online. Early in the pandemic we had a donor provide the cameras and other technology we needed, and we have significant relevant, since we have been streaming the Sunday morning cantatas since late September. Though we miss the immediacy of live performance, we are reaching as many as 1,700 viewers each week. Our music is heard around the globe in ways it never was before.

Working with three high-quality cameras, videographer Dave Jamrog and visual director Nathan Troup can make the concerts visually arresting. The experience of streaming cantatas and the first season concert, Bach’s Goldberg Variations for strings arranged by Bernard Labadie, has refined the process of changing perspectives and alternating closeups with long shots. We plan to film performances that don’t require a piano in the Lindsey Chapel of Emmanuel Church. That jewel box offers both exquisite visuals and excellent acoustics.

The small ensembles required for these events that have eased the transition to pandemic restrictions. The musicians can distance and communicate without great difficulty, and many have learned to adapt. Soprano Kristen Watson, who is singing Songs from the Chinese accompanied by classical guitarist Zaira Meneses, noted that “There are certainly challenges to singing masked. I hear myself differently, breathe differently, and work harder on enunciation. Cuing is tricky. But I don’t have to worry about my voice being overpowered. And I love the freedom to perform the slides and glissandos that form such an important part of Britten’s musical vocabulary.”

Other pieces in the Britten series include Phantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, inspired by Mozart’s oboe and string trio [Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370/368b]; Cello Sonata in C Major; Suite for Violin and Piano; and Holiday Diary for piano. The Britten Three Divertimenti for String Quartet originally planned for this chamber series now form part of a separate streamed concert by the Arneis Quartet. which includes Bach, Weill, Jessie Montgomery, and Boston’s own Jonathan Bailey Holland as well as Britten.

Kate Kush is a past President of Emmanuel Music.
Edited screen grab from last month’s Emmanuel stream

The Britten Chamber Festival programs are free to all. Tune in HERE.

Each event will be preceded by a talk at 7:30 PM by musicologist and cultural historian  Imani Danielle Mosley.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 18 at 8:00 PM

Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus for tenor and harp, op 89 (1974)
Jonas Budris, tenor
Krysten Keches, harp

Suite for Violin and Piano, op. 6  (1935)
Rose Drucker, violin
Donald Berman, piano

Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi for countertenor, tenor, baritone, and piano, Op. 86 (1971)        

Doug Dodson, countertenor
Charles Blandy, tenor
David Tinervia, baritone
Brett Hodgdon, piano

Songs from the Chinese for soprano and guitar, Op. 58 (1957)

Kristen Watson, soprano
Zaira Meneses, guitar

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19 at 8:00 PM

Canticle I: My beloved is mine for tenor and piano, op. 40  (1947)
Jonas Budris, tenor
Donald Berman, piano

Cello Sonata in C Major (1960)

Elegia
Rhonda Rider, cello
Judith Gordon, piano

Folk Songs of the British Isles:Lemady
Bonny at Morn
Lord! I Married Me a Wife
O Waly, Waly

David Tinervia, baritone
Brett Hodgdon, piano

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 20 at 8:00 PM

Canticle III: Still falls the rain for tenor, horn, and piano (1954)     

Charles Blandy, tenor
Clark Matthews, horn
Brett Hodgdon, piano

Holiday Diary, Suite for Piano, Op. 5 (1934)

 Donald Berman, piano

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for alto, tenor, and piano, Op. 51 (1952)    

Deborah Rentz-Moore, alto
Ryan Turner, tenor
Brett Hodgdon, piano

Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2, for oboe, violin, viola, and cello Op. 2 (1932)      

Jennifer Slowik, oboe
Sarah Atwood, violin
Mark Berger, viola
Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello