Cantilena Chamber Choir: 'Britten 100' is centennial of a master


LENOX -- "What better excuse to do what you always wanted to do anyway?" asks conductor Andrea Goodman.

She's talking about the centennial of Benjamin Britten's birth and the choral concert she'll conduct Sunday in Trinity Church. As part of the worldwide remembrances, she'll lead her Cantilena Chamber Choir in a mix of pieces both sacred and secular, familiar and unfamiliar.

Among "the great hits," as she calls them, are "Hymn to St. Cecilia," celebrating the patron saint of music, and "Rejoice in the Lamb," a slightly off-kilter cantata invoking various animals and other oddities in praise of God and Jesus.

Other pieces on the 3 p.m. program include "Festival Te Deum," "Hymn to the Virgin" and selections from "Five Flower Songs," plus some songs for and by children's choruses. Trevor Kahlbaugh will be the organ accompanist.

It's great stuff to sing as well as hear, according to Goodman.

"People just love to sing it," she said in an interview. Britten "knows how to write for the voice, both in the range and in something that's lyrically appealing for singers," who "love the sound that it makes."

The texts can be especially meaningful to many people, she added. For instance, "Rejoice in the Lamb" sets a text by Christopher Smart, who was in a mental asylum when he wrote it. In the narration, he rises above the many indignities he suffered there.

Reflecting one of Britten's abiding themes, the piece is "about one person against the unreasonable behaviors of the many -- the individual standing alone fighting for his rights," Goodman said.

Though overshadowed by 2013's Wagner and Verdi bicentennials, the Britten anniversary has called forth 1,500 centennial performances in 140 locations, according to the Britten-Pears Foundation. (Peter Pears was Britten's partner and favored tenor.) Goodman took inspiration for her program from a nearly identical Tanglewood Festival Chorus program presented at Tanglewood this past summer.

Britten's wide-ranging musical output includes about 60 choral works, in addition to the choral parts in his operas. As a practicing pianist and conductor, he understood the needs of singers.

In a guide to Britten's choral works, Paul Spicer writes that "a sizeable proportion of his choral music is easily within the reach of a good ordinary choir, another part is well within the grasp of a reasonable church choir, and there is, of course, all the music he wrote specifically for children."

Other works, Spicer writes, "are exceptionally demanding and perhaps best left to professionals and outstanding amateurs." Goodman got a taste of that. When she ordered the sheet music for two early "Part Songs" from the catalog, they were listed as easy.

They proved anything but. They're on the program anyway.

The concert will sample the children's music with "Friday Afternoons," 12 songs with piano accompaniment. They will be performed by the South Hadley Children's Choir and the Hampshire Young People's Chorus Concert Choir, groups with which Goodman has partnered before. The 23 adult singers will host 75 children.

The sacred and secular tend to overlap in Britten (as in other English choral composers, such as Handel). The secular "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and "Rejoice in the Lamb," for example, draw on religious subjects but are celebratory rather than liturgical, Goodman points out. "Festival Te Deum" and "Hymn to the Virgin," on the other hand, are used in some services.

Britten wrote "tons of sacred music," Goodman says. Because the concert is in a church but not a church service, she decided, "Well, let's just do as much secular as we can."

As Spicer puts it in his guidebook: "The range of this output and the frequency of performance of the better-known works underline Britten's ubiquity in the world of choral singing, not just in the English-speaking community but far beyond."


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