There really is no better way to describe our upcoming Family Concert than to note that it is THE children’s cultural event of the season for the Lehigh Valley and beyond. I am biased for sure, but not that biased. The Choir, itself, will not be singing, though individual members have roles in a large cast of singers (including some professionals, as well as our Bel Canto Children’s Chorus). They’ll be accompanied by members of the Lehigh University Philharmonic, the Bach Festival Orchestra, members of the Young People’s Philharmonic, and joined on stage by actors from the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre. Because The Choir isn’t joining this performance, I’ve been somewhat out of the loop about the vagaries and details, and I think I may have missed a few partners (I believe Doug Roysdon from the Mock Turtle Marionette Theater is helping with the children’s animal costumes). This is going to be one of our biggest and, if you’ll pardon the groaner of a pun, splashiest collaborations in years.
This will be a fully-staged church opera, written by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten. Though our Family Concerts usually take place in the Zoellner Arts Center, it was decided, given the composer’s intentions, to stage it in Lehigh University’s magical Packer Memorial Church. The work was intended primarily for amateur performers (some of the instrumental parts are designed for volunteer players, some are wickedly hard, and clearly written for professionals), specifically children, of whom there will be many, in riotous costumes as the animals who will eventually board the ark. The libretto is based on a Chester mystery (or miracle) play, from a cycle of charming and powerful biblical narratives that originated in the Middle Ages.
I could easily write, from personal experience, a long essay about the spellbinding impact that Britten’s music has on children. I’ve coached my youth choirs through movements of his stunningly beautiful Ceremony of Carols, and sung in performances with children of his Saint Nicolas, twice, now (one of those was The Choir’s Christmas Concert several years ago). A couple of years ago, my wife, an elementary music teacher and member of The Choir, had prepared her 3rd and 4th grade choruses to sing “Cuckoo” from his beloved children’s song collection, Friday Afternoons. We had rehearsed several non-Britten selections, some of the higher-quality but more conventional elementary school fare that she programs, with excellent results, though she was working hard to keep the students focused and on task. When she said, “Next, Cuckoo,” the energy in the room completely changed, a hush fell, and the kids dug in. We were talking about that moment last night, and she posited that children find Britten so compelling because he doesn’t patronize or condescend to them in the least. I will risk sounding the curmudgeon for a brief moment to write that I think that a lot of children’s entertainment is vacuous and empty, cultural and spiritual junk food, and when something special, like Britten’s music, is served, the opportunity for transcendence is pretty reliably realized. End sermon.
First performed in 1958, the impact of Britten’s 1956 travels to Asia are easily discerned. While there, he witnessed Noh plays, classical dance dramas of the Japanese theatre, and spent some time in Bali, where he heard gamelan music. This might account for the large amount of mallet percussion writing in Noye’s Fludde, and for a distinctly Eastern cast to some of the music. But, that’s only the beginning of Britten’s culturally omnivorous ways – we hear a Bachian passacaglia as the work begins, there are bugle calls, the patter of rain is simulated with slung mugs struck with metal spoons, there are moments of compositional bitonality (two key signatures being played simultaneously), the Navy Hymn, cameos from the cello as a raven and from a fluttering recorder as a dove, an ebullient duo piano part, handbells creating an aural rainbow, some self-parodying organ writing, and a last movement that brings all the disparate performing forces together while the singers rhapsodize in eight parts on a setting of Tallis’ Canon. At this point, in his compositional life, Britten had developed a great skill writing music depicting storms at sea – think of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, or the powerfully evocative storm scene in Saint Nicolas. There is much whimsy, joy, fun, but also powerful moments of devotion, collective singing (the audience will join in, as well), compelling instrumental writing, giant rackets as well as great intimacy. When you set one of the 20th century’s greatest musical thinkers on the task of writing a powerful work for children, the result is something no one wil soon to forget. The other night, I was listening to Richard Hickox’s wonderful recording of the work to begin to get a sense of the piece as I scrolled through social media. As the bugle calls began over the gamelan orchestration in the final movement I had to stop reading and just listen, and was moved to tears to think of how this will all sound in a couple weeks’ time.
Tickets are inexpensive, and Packer Memorial Church will be the perfect setting for this monumental (but short, it rolls in at about an hour in length) musical and aesthetic experience, especially appropriate for families and children of all ages. Bring your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, the neighbor children. Counsel them that it will likely be quite unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and then watch Britten and this tremendously committed band of performers cast their spell over them (and you)! Seriously, don’t miss this concert, this event!!!