What to make of the Benjamin Britten centenary? The final concert program of the Castleton Festival, heard Saturday night, offered an excellent tribute to the British composer. How does one square one’s admiration for the beauty of Britten’s music with a clearer understanding, thanks to a well-researched and not sensationalized book by John Bridcut, of Britten’s attraction to teenage boys?
In his gorgeous song cycle “Les Illuminations,” on Rimbaud’s poetry, Britten dedicated the most overtly homoerotic song, “Antique,” to 18-year-old Wulff Scherchen, with whom he was obsessed. Conductor David Hanlon and the Festival Orchestra brought out the cycle’s riotous tapestry of instrumental colors, but most of the credit goes to tenor Andy McCullough, whose light and airy voice, with power where he needed it, was beautiful to hear. “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” played without the narration introducing each type of instrument, showed the woodwinds and brass in the best light, especially the variations for clarinets and trumpets. For all of the piece’s innocent delight, Britten dedicated it to Humphrey Maud, another one of his young favorites, whose father eventually demanded that Britten stop asking his son to spend his vacations with the composer at Aldeburgh.
Lorin Maazel conducted only one piece on the program, part of the heart-stopping final scene from Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” with star tenor Neil Shicoff bringing down the house as the troubled fisherman. That generally overshadowed Christopher Bozeka, a tenor in the Castleton training program, who then gave a good performance of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” The Russian composer’s “1812 Overture” provided a big bang for the end of the concert, complete with some sort of cannon sound made behind the stage backdrop, as well as good training for the young musicians. The lucky ones among them, those who end up with a career playing in professional orchestras, will likely have to play that piece at least once a year.
Downey is a freelance writer.