Celebrating Britten’s Centennial at Baruch College — Sandy Wilson

Sandy Wilson | Alexander String QuartetThe Alexander String Quartet has just wrapped another wonderful week in New York, teaching twenty one classes at Baruch College in NYC. Reminiscing a little this afternoon during our performance in the College’s justly revered Engelman Recital Hall in the Baruch Performing Arts Center, we contemplated a few statistics:
As we begin our 28th year as the Aaron and Freda Silberman Ensemble in Residence at CUNY’s prestigious business school, we calculated that since 1986 we have played 55 dedicated one-hour Silberman Recital Series concerts; taught and/or participated in more than 1,000 classes ranging from Music in Civilization, Intro to Theater, Mathematics and Quantitative Reasoning, Film Music, Great Works of Literature, Harmony, Composition, Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Business Models and many more subjects, and we have have reached and performed for more than 25,000 business students. This remains a visionary and pretty staggering gift from an alumnus on the G.I. Bill from the class of 1946 to his Alma Mater. Thank you Aaron Silberman and thanks to Freda and the entire Silberman Family too for your enduring gift and generous support.

Our residency activities continue tomorrow as we close our 2013 Baruch evening recital series featuring the complete string quartets of Benjamin Britten. There have been many observations approaching the centennial of Britten’s birth over the past two seasons by many of the world’s most elite presenters and organizations. All are celebrating one of Great Britain’s finest composers ever and quite possibly the world’s greatest and most prolific composers of opera in the English Language. Considering this latter fact, it is perhaps understandable that Britten’s three extraordinary mature string quartets are less well known. For our own part, the ASQ has relished learning and sharing these masterpieces (as well as some of B.B’s fine earlier quartets) with many audiences on the east and west coasts. We have come to know and love these works like almost no others. The three mature quartets, dating from 1941, 1945 and 1975 have revealed themselves to be spiritually exhilarating and devastatingly beautiful and somehow, profoundly moving.

As we considered how best to group and present these works in NYC, it occurred to us that combining select Shostakovich quartets alongside Britten made an insightful pairing. At the time we were planning this matchmaking, I had not yet read the fine article by Joshua Kosman which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 2013. I quote from it in part:

“…. Britten’s music is as sophisticated in its construction, and as uncompromising in its integrity, as anything written during his lifetime or beyond. But it also takes a practical and humane stance toward its listeners, addressing them as thoughtful equals who are susceptible to being charmed, delighted and moved by art, not just awed by its technical complexities.

This was, in its way, a bold and important counterpoise to the modernist narrative that held sway through much of the 20th century. Like his friend and near-contemporary Shostakovich (both of them in turn guided by Mahler’s example), Britten made the case for the social role of music – as a medium for personal and political expression, for communal interaction, and for the creation of sheer beauty that can ravish the senses. It’s an achievement that seems all the more valuable and pressing today.”

From their very first meeting in London in 1959, it was thanks to the Russian master-cellist and their mutual friend Mstislav Rostropovich, that Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten formed and maintained a deep and enduring friendship and mutual admiration. From the ASQ’s perspective, it seemed clear that the two composers were each profoundly affected by their very different experiences of Second World War and this presented itself as a fitting starting point for our programming purposes.

Indeed Britten’s first quartet from 1941 was written in the US during his self-imposed, if soon to prove untenable exile from the UK as a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector. He returned to Britain soon after, ultimately participating in the war effort from home. His 2nd quartet was composed in 1945, immediately after the war and was commissioned to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. We know that Britten (who was a very fine pianist) and Yehudi Menuhin, his recital partner were reportedly emotionally shattered, having just returned from their recent tour of western European concentration camps and in particular, Bergen-Belsen. This 2nd quartet, sonically close to his opera Peter Grimes is a spiritually overwhelming work. Although the two composers had not yet met each other at this point, interposing the 2nd Shostakovich quartet from 1944 between the two Britten works seemed entirely natural. The chronological arrangement of the three works seemed not only tidy but each of these very different yet agonizingly beautiful and arresting meditations on the devastation of war seem fundamentally related one to another at their very core.

For the second program we decided to maintain the chronological presentation of the two composers’ virtually parallel final quartet masterpieces. Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15th from 1974 has six continuous movements, each marked Adagio and carrying the titles: Elegie; Serenade; Intermezzo; Nocturne; Funeral March and Epilogue. Benjamin Britten’s 3rd Quartet from 1975 is in five movements titled: Duets; Ostinato; Solo; Burlesque and, Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima). This last quartet of Britten’s, as the reference to La Serenissima indicates, is closely related to his opera “Death in Venice” and there can be no doubt that his ill-health and certain death were on his mind, Indeed Britten and his life’s partner Peter Pears made a “last” trip to Venice, a destination very meaningful to them shortly before the heart surgery from which he never recovered. In the case of Shostakovich, failing rapidly from his 2nd and devastating heart attack, he was intimately aware of his fast approaching death. Although he was able to complete one final masterpiece in the form of his viola sonata, there is no doubt that the 15th would be his last string quartet.

It seems mildly alarming to us now that when we contemplated coordinating this closing concert for the New York Shostakovich/Britten survey in order to coincide with the actual centennial of Britten’s birth (November 23, 1913), we failed to anticipate that this would also fall on the commemoration the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As it has turned out, we trust that it will prove serendipitous and feel somehow “right.”

The program might seem a tad “deathly” but we believe that it will surely prove uplifting and memorable for its intensely contemplative music and the beautifully expressed, universal embrace and acceptance of life’s inevitably full cycle.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s