THE MELBOURNE REVIEW: Britten in Palestine by Peter Tregear October 2013 October 8, 2013

Benjamin BrittenThe Melbourne Review    -    October 2013

An anniversary largely unmarked in Australia is celebrated under trying circumstances at the Palestine Choral Festival – with several Australians involved.

Of the three big composer anniversaries this year, the one that seems to have garnered the least attention from the artistic directors of Australia’s major music institutions is Benjamin Britten. Opera Australia’s mounting of Wagner’s Ring in December no doubt foreclosed any thoughts of a Britten season in Melbourne, let alone a staging of perhaps his greatest creative achievement, the opera Peter Grimes (though Sydney at least got a revival of a production of Albert Herring). Perhaps his War Requiem will feature in orchestral programmes from 2014 as we approach a series of centennial anniversaries associated with the great battles of World War One; otherwise it might appear that Australia’s relationship to Britten’s music is not altogether unlike our commonly expressed feelings towards Britain itself – reticent.

Around the globe, however, it is a different matter, in part the result of powerful advocacy by his publishers Boosey & Hawkes, the Britten-Pears Foundations, and by strong ongoing scholarly interest. One of the more controversial examples of the latter is a new biography by Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century (Penguin). Kildea, who was born in Canberra and studied in Melbourne, is also a noted champion of Britten’s music from the podium; he conducted Turn of the Screw for Victorian Opera in 2010. More recently Kildea conducted one of the more remarkable anniversary events – two performances of Britten’s cantata St Nicolas for the inaugural Palestine Choral Festival (August 22–31). The Festival was directed by another Australian, Michael Stevens, who is currently the head of programming for the Melbourne Festival, and a co-founder of the Choir of London, which provided the core musical forces for these performances. The explicit mission of the group is to be ‘not just a choir’, but a ‘community of musicians who create change’. Since 2003 it has toured four times to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and directs concert income to fund a bursary scheme for talented young Palestinian musicians so they can experience musical life in the UK.

St Nicolas was composed in 1948 to mark the centennial celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex; Britten’s partner Peter Pears was an alumnus and the School was originally known as the College of St Mary and St Nicolas. Written for performance by the School, it is cleverly scored for a mix of both professional and amateur musicians and remains ideal for collaborative performances where rehearsal circumstances can be difficult. But St Nicolas himself is also a Saint with deep resonance for the local region. The town of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, whose Latin Church was the location for one of the performances, is founded on the site of the cave in which Nicolas is thought to have lived during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 312–315 CE. And 1948, of course, was also an eventful year, to say the least, for the region. Local legend has it that St Nicolas was seen with hands outstretched, catching bombs that fell on Beit Jala during the war that erupted after the creation of the State of Israel.

Thus the St Nicolas we meet both here and in Britten’s cantata is a world away from our impoverished and commercialised imaging of a Santa Claus. But this was a Festival very much about opening minds as well as ears. One lasting benefit for the international musicians who attended was the many opportunities it provided to meet and interact with local communities, both off and on the concert stage, and to visit areas in the Occupied Territories which are usually outside the gaze of the Western media. Here the ‘facts on the ground’ are, to say the least, confronting. The new condo-tower settlement complex on Jabal Abu Ghneim, which lies in the valley between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, for instance, has self-evidently been built to be an immovable object – how it eventually confronts the irresistible force of self determination remains to be seen. And while the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories notes that ‘as a foreign passport holder you might gain kinky satisfaction from waving a little book that wields power over the guns, walls and barbed wire that deny 2.3 million West Bank Palestinians free passage’, any such satisfaction quickly evaporates when some of those 2.3 million are your musical collaborators or indeed your audience. In ‘Blessed Cecilia’, the Choir of London’s staged rendering of Britten’s music for the Festival that concluded with his Hymn to St Cecilia, the Choir exhorted its audience to remind us that she was not just patron saint of musicians but also a conscientious objector, a fighter for religious and cultural freedom. In such circumstances, such music is indeed well worth performing and hearing.

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