Britten concerts in Carmel

This weekend offers local music-lovers a rare Benjamin Britten mini-festival, with the Enso Quartet performing the English composer’s String Quartet No. 2 on Friday, April 26, and Ensemble Monterey presenting his powerful War Requiem the following evening, Saturday, April 27.  (Both concerts are at Sunset Center, in Carmel.)  Britten (1913-1976) was an ardent, lifelong pacifist, and a conscientious objector during World War II.  His passion for peace is inseparable from the themes and forms he explored in his music.  An openly gay man in an era when most homosexuals hid their true nature, Britten created a musical world that, over the span of his brilliant career, conveys a deep love of and concern for all of humanity, especially children and adults who, as outcasts or misunderstood outsiders, do not feel welcome in society.

His String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36 (1945), was written just four months after the triumphal premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, a musical debut that firmly established his reputation as a major international composer.  The quartet was commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, one of the few English composers whose music influenced Britten, who looked more to Europe (Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky) and America (Copland) for inspiration.

The first movement opens with the four string instruments singing in unison, a reminder that, like Bach, Britten was primarily a vocal composer who always thought about the vocal line whether or not he was writing for the voice.  At the end of the first theme, the united vocal line of the four strings opens up to a world of rhythm and harmony, as the music becomes choral, tensions developing, overlapping and resolving.

After a short second scherzo movement evocative of the driving urgency of some of Shostakovich’s string quartet writing, the quartet settles into a long third movement, longer in fact than the first two movements combined.  It is here where Britten’s debt to Purcell is heard, in the form of a passacaglia, a series of solo cadenzas and variations.  This movement also recalls the striking use of intervals, especially fourths and fifths, heard in Peter Grimes; as in that opera, the cascading intervals magnificently evoke an atmosphere of sea-swells, of tremulous, open space.  The quartet concludes grandly, emphatically with a series of C-major chords that feel celebratory and almost architectural.

I have wanted to hear the Enso Quartet for many years, since first encountering their highly acclaimed recording of Ginastera’s string quartets.  It is also interesting to think about how chamber groups choose their name.  According to the group’s website, the word enso refers to “the Japanese zen painting of the circle which represents many things; perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”  Britten was drawn to Asian musical modes and instruments (especially the gamelan) later in his career; this young quartet from New York City seems like the perfect ensemble to carry the message of Britten’s gorgeous music to Carmel.  (This concert will also feature works by Mozart and Beethoven.)

Britten’s War Requiem is one of those staggering works of art that can almost feel like too much to experience in one sitting.  Well, it should be too much, because its subject is the grotesque savagery of war and the heartbreaking loss it causes.  I will never forget a performance I heard at Carnegie Hall some twenty years ago.  My friend and I were still in our seats, unable to speak, unable to move after the performance had concluded,  after the musicians had left the stage, after the seats around us had emptied.  Even then, every particle of air around us in that great hall still vibrated with the power of this music, which Britten wrote for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral (which had been destroyed by German bombs in World War II).

The War Requiem is a massive work, a true contemporary masterpiece, in which the Latin mass for the dead is interspersed with poetry by the slain World War I poet Wilfred Owen (who, like Britten, was gay).  For their season-concluding performance in Carmel, the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra, directed by John Anderson, is joining forces with the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Cantiamo!, the Cabrillo Chorale, and the Cabrillo Youth Chorus.  It is an ambitious work for a community group to take on and I admire these musicians’ courage.  Britten’s message of peace, grief, and the joy found in human connection shall never go out of style and is welcome in every community.  Strong music like Britten’s has a way of cutting through our confusion and laying bare what is in our hearts.  It has not been explained to me, for instance, why a bomb that kills three people is a terrorist weapon of mass destruction but a high-powered rifle that kills twenty children and six adults is a personal possession that is protected by the Second Amendment.  Music like the War Requiem helps us get past the political obfuscations of our time to the deeper, more painful, more tender truth, which is that every life matters.

The Enso Quartet performs Mozart, Britten and Beethoven at Sunset Center, in Carmel, Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m.  For information call 625-2212 or visit the Chamber Music Monterey Bay website.  There will be a free pre-concert lecture at 7:00 p.m.

Ensemble Monterey presents Britten’s War Requiem, Saturday, April 27, at Sunset Center, in Carmel, at 8:00 p.m.  For tickets or information call 333-1283 or visit Ensemble Monterey’s website.