Some organizations honored Benjamin Britten’s centennial in 2013 with large-scale performances. The Cantate Chamber Singers is not set up to fill the Kennedy Center concert hall, but its observance this year, under music director Gisele Becker, is one of the most true to Britten’s spirit. The group has devoted its entire 2013-2014 season to Britten’s music: four concerts given in different places — churches, halls — in the community.
Sunday afternoon, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church was the venue for a performance of “Curlew River,” one of the three church parables Britten wrote in the mid-1960s, quirky and seldom staged and well-served by the carefully thought-out, beautifully executed performance it got here.
“Curlew River” was influenced by Noh drama, which the composer first saw on a trip to Japan in the 1950s. The spareness and twanging dissonances of the music, and the ritual aspects of the Noh-inspired costumes and movement on stage (designed and executed in this production by Shizumi Shigeto Manale), convey an element of ritual distance that evokes the sober wonder of medieval church pageants. Adding to the sense of ritual was Cantate’s presentation, in which the singers were minimally involved with the action, standing slightly above and to the side, while masked and costumed actors pantomimed their roles throughout the church’s apse.
Not a note of this music goes to waste; Britten makes every gesture count. The action is borne atop the pillowing sound of plainchant-like singing from the male chorus, portraying a group of monks and led by an Abbot (Scott Humburg) who focuses their message and offers the moralizing link to connect the onstage action with their daily world. The instrumentation echoes the bright kimonos in offering telling splashes of color: a golden horn, a chittering double bass, a dusky viola, percussion as articulate as human speech (played by Joseph McIntyre), and flute, harp and organ.
The plot is slender and could easily be crushed by an insensitive performance. A madwoman, mocked by travelers at a ferry crossing, is searching for her son; the ferryman tells his passengers of a boy who died here the year before, and has been veritably canonized by locals. The madwoman recognizes this as a description of her child, and then hears his voice as a benediction. Steven Combs’s warm, fluid baritone mitigated the ambiguous figure of the Ferryman, while Joseph Dietrich, a light tenor, offered muted anguish in the tough role of the Madwoman. James Rogers was a doughty Traveler, and Heather Gross sounded boy-like as the voice of the dead boy, rising over the ensemble at the end. Manale’s choreography was a little hard to see from the church pews, and a little disconnected from the singers, but added a kind of connective tissue to the whole.
The first half of the concert was given over to the world premieres of two new works by Gary Davison, “Chidori,” for koto and traditional singers and women’s chorus, and “Observances,” a setting of a work by the local poet Margaret Ingraham. Both were attractive, slight pieces that showcased the women’s voices, while the koto paved the way for the Japanese elements of “Curlew River” — an honorable prelude to the afternoon’s main event. It was nice to see the church so full for a performance that reflected so very well on the organization.
Cantate’s final concert in its Britten season will take place May 3.