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NEC's extraordinary, unconducted Chamber Orchestra contributes to the ongoing mini-festival celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth.
Coached by Donald Palma, the ensemble will perform an all-Britten program:
Prelude and Fugue for 18 Instruments
Les Illuminations song cycle with soprano soloist Nataly Wickham
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the composer's homage to his teacher.
Tonight’s all-Britten program is not only a celebration of the great English composer’s 100th birthday but also a discreet tribute to the Boyd Neel Orchestra and its physician/conductor founder who reinvigorated the chamber orchestra genre. The three pieces on the program were all youthful works, composed before Britten’s 30th birthday. All three were written for the Boyd Neel Orchestra.
The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge dates from 1937 when Neel, in a rush, commissioned Britten (only 24) to write a work for the Salzburg Festival. Britten, enviably fluent after having composed hundreds of pieces since childhood, poured on the steam and produced in about a month this dazzling tribute to his teacher, Frank Bridge. It was a hit and brought Britten international attention. The work continues to delight listeners (and the performers who have plenty of virtuosic challenges). In addition to the theme composed by Bridge, each section of the work was designed to celebrate the human qualities of the man Britten so admired. Thus, passages were marked to demonstrate his profundity, energy, charm, wit, reverence. A favorite Variation: the Aria Italiana, a glittering parody of a Rossini aria.
Les Illuminations, came two years later, composed while Britten and Peter Pears were taking refuge in the United States from World War II, but not premiered until 1940 when they had returned to England. The work marked Britten’s great discovery of the Symbolist poems of Arthur Rimbaud. The resulting song cycle for soprano (which is often sung by tenor) and chamber orchestra sets nine of the prose-poems. Britten responded to the strange, cryptic poetry with music full of vivid mood and landscape painting. The piece was premiered by soprano Sophie Wyss, to whom it is dedicated, and the Boyd Neel Orchestra.
In 1943, just a few months before his 30th birthday, Britten composed the Prelude and Fugue for 18 String Instruments to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Boyd Neel Orchestra. With the example of Bach very much front of mind, Britten demonstrated his own contrapuntal virtuosity. At one point in the fugue, he divides the orchestra into its 18 component parts, writing separate lines for each instrument. It’s a tour de force.