City Celebrates Britten Centenary

City Celebrates Britten Centenary

Britten had a special artistic relationship with Russia and its art.

Published: June 5, 2013 (Issue # 1762)

This wek St. Petersburg celebrates the life and works of Benjamin Britten, Britain’s most well-known and internationally played 20th-century composer. The celebrations began on Tuesday at the State Hermitage Museum and are part of many performances taking place worldwide, marking the centennial of his birth.

A pianist, conductor and composer, Britten’s oeuvre includes orchestral and choral work, operas, chamber and instrumental music, film music as well as music for children and amateur performers. He also wrote solo vocal works, with many written for Peter Pears — a renowned tenor and Britten’s life partner.

While events and performances are scheduled around the world for Britten’s centenary, it’s Russian incarnation holds particular significance, mainly due to Britten’s special artistic relationship with the country.

Britten visited Russia several times and maintained many friendships with Russian musicians such as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, pianist Sviatoslav Richter and cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch — the latter two having performed with him at the Aldeburgh Festival. On one of his visits to St. Petersburg, Britten was struck by Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Return of the Prodigal Son” during a tour of the Hermitage and the experience inspired him to write his own opera, “The Prodigal Son.”

On Tuesday, the Hermitage Theatre held an invitation-only premiere of the “Prodigal Son.” Britten’s two other church parables, “Curlew River” and “The Burning Fiery Furnace,” along with “Prodigal Son” will be performed at the St. Ekaterina’s Church this week, from Wednesday to Saturday by the young opera company The Mahogany Opera. Dedicated to Shostakovich, the opera has never before been performed in Russia.The triptych’s intense subject matter promises to make for an exciting and involving performance.

The Hermitage will also show an exhibition in the composer’s honor, titled “Wall of Water,” by British artist Maggi Hambling. Hambling’s first tribute to the composer was in 2003 — a sculpture titled “Scallop” that sits on a stretch of empty beach in Suffolk, Britten’s hometown.  The giant metal scallop shell is edged with the perforated words, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned,” taken from the Britten opera, “Peter Grimes.”

For the centennial exhibition, Hambling unites the theme of the sea with that of reconciliation, taken from the iconic Rembrandt that so inspired Britten. “Wall of Water,” a series of monotypes, depicts the drama of high tide on Britain’s Suffolk coast, emphasizing the moment of discord that occurs before the ultimate reuniting of father and son. The works will be on view in the Foyer of the Hermitage Theatre from June 5-14.

In the fall, the Britten centenary program will continue on to Moscow, with a series of concerts performed by the Russian National Orchestra. The program will also include an exhibition of Britten Pears’ art collection at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. The All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature will also be releasing a publication of the first Russian-language biography of the composer.

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