On Friday evening, after a chilly and rainy week stereotypical of weather “across the pond,” the Sinfonia da Camera and members of Lyric Theater @ Illinois collaborated to give a concert of British music at Foellinger Hall in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Ian Hobson conducted the concert in two halves. The first featured the Sinfonia da Camera playing three orchestral pieces by William Walton, Frank Bridge, and Eric Coates. The second featured the single-act comic operetta Trial by Jury by Gilbert & Sullivan, with members of Lyric Theater @ Illinois singing the principal parts and directed by Dawn Harris. This critic hopes that both the collaboration between Sinfonia da Camera and Lyric Theater @ Illinois as well as the concert devoted completely to British music will become a regular occurrence. Classical music from Britain is never a hard sell in my book, but I will admit to having a special interest in it: British music, particularly of the 19th and 20th centuries, is not only my professional wheelhouse but also the musical home of some of my personal favorite pieces and composers.
The Sinfonia opened with William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, which he completed in 1926 — a festive and contemporary-sounding overture that incorporates many classic features of British orchestral music. The picture that Walton paints in sound was also inspired by a famous painting, Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson. Portsmouth has traditionally been associated with sailors, and it’s easy to imagine clear skies and good sailing weather depicted by clear, polished string harmonies.
Listeners regularly note a lack of folk songs in Walton’s music, a central feature of the music of his contemporaries Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, as well as an absence of overt nationalism or imperialism. Instead, Walton draws on the British military wind and brass band traditions, both in the timbres of the instruments and their clear, exuberant rhythmic riffs. Giving the winds plenty to do is always a good idea for an orchestra composer: it vastly extends the different sounds available, which helps keep the piece interesting and expressive, and means that the strings don’t get to have all the fun. Walton is also always ready to add plenty of bass to his orchestration, and it fills out the sound of the orchestra in a way that just turning up the volume can’t achieve.
The second offering, There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook by Frank Bridge, takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia’s drowning. Of all the offerings in this concert, this was the most serious. It represents Bridge’s writing later in his career, and audibly reflects his profound influence on his students and protegée Benjamin Britten. The complex, layered harmonies also reflect his training as a violist — as the alto voice in the string section, it’s the viola’s business to fill out the inner voices in multi-part writing, which would sound sparse and incomplete without them. Bridge’s strings create a heady, thick harmonic backdrop for his wind soloists. He favors the oboe, though also includes flute, clarinet, and harp before giving a dramatic climax to the horn section. Each of these instrumental choices evokes the landscape where Ophelia has drowned and the complex emotions that come with it: how beautiful she was when living, and how tragically short her life was. Bridge’s music has an incredible capacity for intensity without being overwrought, even when the orchestra is playing at full blast and the violins are soaring in their high register. He never emotes more than he needs to, never directs the listener how to feel too much.
The orchestra closed the first half with the jaunty and exciting London Suite by Eric Coates. It depicts city scenes in Covent Garden, Westminster, and Knightsbridge visible in different directions from his apartment in Baker Street. The BBC arranged its first performance in 1932, and “Knightsbridge” doubled as the theme song for the BBC radio show In Town Tonight. It rocketed Coates to popularity with radio listeners. Coates is often described as a composer of “light” music — a sometimes-pejorative term that does not do his work justice. He uses the same techniques popular with composers depicting nature to evoke parts of the city in sound. In the “Westminster” movement the horn section plays the sound of Big Ben chiming the hour, and in “Covent Garden” he uses winds and strings together to capture the movement and bustle of the market. The rigidity of modernist concert etiquette relaxed a bit, overruled by enthusiasm and the orchestra’s infectious enjoyment. The audience was pleased to clap between the movements of Coates’s London Suite, and no one — onstage or off — seemed bothered or inclined to stop them.
Following the intermission, members of Lyric Theater @ Illinois joined the Sinfonia da Camera to perform W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s Trial By Jury (1875). It was the second-ever of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s musical theater collaborations after their first, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, in 1871. This production was a comedy on the order of Looney Tunes: every classic “leading man” opera singer joke in the book made an appearance, and the audience was glad to see and hear them. High note contests, low note contests, long note contests (complete with one guy looking at his watch) — it was classic schtick and physical comedy of the kind that would make Mel Brooks proud. Héctor Camacho-Salazar (Defendant), Stephen Burdsall (Counsel for the Plaintiff) and Shayne Piles (Usher) particularly had the audience in stitches with their staged one-upmanship.
Concerts like this are why I keep coming back to British music for more. It can be contemplative, nostalgic, and bereaved, and yet also celebratory, funny, and unreservedly joyful. I’m reminded nearly every day of how privileged I am to be a scholar of this music, but I’m especially gratified when I get to hear it played so expertly as a member of such a responsive and appreciative audience.