In 1960, when the University of Basel celebrated its 500th anniversary, it had the happy idea of commissioning Benjamin Britten to compose a piece of choral music for the occasion. The result, the solemnly playful "Cantata Academica," was performed last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall by the student choir and orchestra of Oberlin College, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It was a good performance--very good for a student ensemble--and it gave connoisseurs a fine opportunity to hear a rarely performed masterpiece.
Britten was a child prodigy who never lost his sense of playfulness as he matured, and in this "Academic" cantata, he plays games with all sorts of obscure and "learned" musical forms and techniques--notably those of the school of Arnold Schoenberg, which was the dominant academic style during his life. Britten's academic wit sparkles through various forms of counterpoint and includes such musical puns as the use of C-flat instead of B. Above all, though, and this is the work's prime musical virtue, he pokes fun at academia by producing a very lively setting of a very stuffy Renaissance Latin text, based largely on the university's charter. Even for those who pay no attention to such trivia, it is gorgeous music and it was highly enjoyable last night.
Among the four alumni soloists, who are now launched on promising careers, the most distinguished work was by tenor Franco Farina in the florid recitative passages that were obviously designed for the unique voice of Peter Pears. Conductor Daniel Moe also led a well-styled performance of Handel's "Dixit Dominus" and three a cappella religious works by Charles Ives, Georg Schumann and Otto Olsson.