Bullish On Britten, Conlon Spearheads Celebration In L.A.

James Conlon rehearses young members of the orchestra he led in Britten's War Requiem at Disney Hall.  (Photos by Bonnie Perkinson)
James Conlon (right) has made a point to include students in his sprawling, year-long ‘Britten 100/LA’ celebration.
(Conlon photos by Bonnie Perkinson)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – On the desk in James Conlon’s brightly lit office within the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, there is a study score of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – its cover ripped and tattered from frequent use, its inside page marked with dates and the places where Conlon has conducted it. Other Britten scores can be seen throughout the office, reminders that this conductor is on a crusade to make the music world aware of the depth and quality of this composer in his 100th birthday year.

“I don’t think that Britten is underrated,” Conlon says. “He is not sufficiently known.”

James Conlon is leading many Britten works this season.
James Conlon has focused on Britten in recent concerts worldwide.

Which is true to a great extent. Yes, Peter Grimes by now is one of but a handful of operas after Puccini and Richard Strauss that have become part of the international operatic repertoire, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is on almost every music appreciation teacher’s playlist. But beyond these and maybe a few others, Britten’s staggeringly thorough catalog covering all genres of classical music has been mostly absent from American concert halls, at least until this year’s centennial.

So in order to fill some of that gap, Conlon is spearheading a sprawling, year-long celebration called “Britten 100/LA” in Los Angeles, an impressive series of concerts, lectures, and discussions that started last February and spills over into the winter of 2014. Many of them are free, including a concert that took place on the actual birth date, Nov. 22. He is conducting Britten around the world as well, having already led A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Metropolitan Opera (reviewed here) and Curlew River at a church in Rome. Only emergency diverticulitis surgery in August could keep the indefatigable Conlon, 63, out of action for a little while, forcing the cancellation of a few Britten events over the summer. Yet he has bounced quickly back. (He feels like a new man now, he says.)

Benjamin Britten wrote the War Requiem in 1961-62.
Benjamin Britten composed the ‘War Requiem’ in 1961-62.

“I wanted to reach as many people on this subject as I could,” he says, “and I saw this centennial as the opportunity to do so in a year where there’s overwhelming competition from Verdi and Wagner – and that will be true in eternity.

“I decided that I could use the model of the Ring Festival of several years ago (2010) and make a celebration – we’re calling it a celebration because it’s spread out over a year – to collaborate with as many people as I could. I thought we could do it perhaps in a more modest, reticent way because one is Wagner and the other is Benjamin Britten.”

Conlon says the project has 90 collaborators — performing organizations, schools, libraries, churches, museums, government agencies, senior centers, and other groups. “It’s amazing. We never thought we’d get 90 partners.”

One obstacle Conlon has chosen to ignore is the perception, a hangover from a more rigid time, that Britten was a “musical conservative” – translation: he didn’t take his marching orders from whoever happened to be fashionable during his lifetime. “I think some of that came from the dodecaphonic school,” he says. “In fact, I know that. The orthodoxy of the post-Schoenberg period was intolerant. It wasn’t music if it was not dodecaphonic, or serial, or Stockhausen.

“The avant-garde were surpassing their predecessors in their rigidity, and it proposed a false division: You’re progressive or regressive, you’re conservative. It was a fundamental error because art doesn’t fall into categories. And Britten didn’t fall into their category. If somebody says, yes it’s contemporary but it’s in an inferior language, I part company immediately. I don’t care if somebody thinks it’s conservative. It isn’t, by the way.”

Jon Vickers in the title role in Britten's Peter Grimes.
Jon Vickers’ Grimes at the Met impressed Conlon deeply.

Conlon fell hard for Britten when at age 16 he attended a Metropolitan Opera performance of Grimes. (“Colin Davis in his debut with the company,” he remembered, “and Jon Vickers marking his territory with that role for the rest of his life. That unleashed everything, from that moment on.”) Grimes sent Conlon to the New York Public Library in search of more Britten scores and recordings, and he awaited each new Britten premiere (the composer was still active then) with the same anticipation as others his age would await the release of the next Beatles album. “I felt it so deeply and reacted to it in such a way that it never occurred to me to think that this music will not stand the test of time, that it will disappear in a few years or after his death,” he says.

Nevertheless, Conlon realizes that for many, “Britten is an acquired taste. It takes a little more concentration listening to it. It’s not music that goes out and screams at you. It’s not music like Wagner that overwhelms you. It is sometimes mysterious, and he draws you in rather than goes out to you.

“My advice to listeners: You must go, you must hear it because it’s too important not to know it. If you like it, come again because you will get so much more out of it the second time. It’s music that will grow on you. If you don’t like it, come again, because it’s there, and the second time it may not seem as strange as it is the first time and you will start to get into that vocabulary.”

Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Conlon: Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich both wrote in code.

Latter-day armchair analysts have written a lot about Britten’s homosexuality, and how it colors his music. Conlon likes to compare Britten with Shostakovich in that they both wrote a good deal of their music in code – Shostakovich to evade the Soviet thought-control apparatus, Britten to evade the edicts and social norms that made homosexuality a crime in Britain as late as 1967.

“Now (when) Britten was very young, (he) clearly and openly recognized his sexual preferences,” Conlon says. “There was no secret about that. At the same time, he was very private, very discreet, did not particularly like to talk about it in the open. It was a fact, and he wanted to go about his business. And yet as an artist – especially the operas – taking the male-to-male relationships in all their configurations becomes a common theme. His code was to deal with male relationships in an era when it was still illegal in Britain to mention homosexuality. The word could not be said on a stage. He couldn’t deal with it. But he wanted to. And so he found a way to write on the subjects without being explicit so it would go under the radar, as it were. But those who were initiated, those who could understand or who were in the `in group,’ they could understand.

“So he uses that code and he studies a lot of male relationships alongside of social issues which were very important to him. The primary one is outraged innocence, a young person who is mistreated or maltreated. He was a pacifist, he hated violence. You’re going to see this in a big way in the War Requiem and the Cantata Misericordium.”

The ruins of Coventry Cathedral, in whose rebuilt edifice the
Ruins of Coventry Cathedral, re-opened in 1962 with ‘War Requiem.’

Having said all that, Conlon leans over and adds, “You don’t have to know any of this to love his music. Now what you’re supposed to do is go and look for the code? No. Listen to the music, experience the music, that speaks for itself and you can ignore the code. In Shostakovich, we didn’t know the code. We thought that he was a party functionary.”

One thing Conlon has made a particular point of is that, with the exception of Los Angeles Opera’s performances of Billy Budd that begin next February, he is using students and young people to perform his many Britten programs in the hope they will carry on the message as they move on in their careers: “I decided that I wanted to collaborate with at least three of the big conservatory orchestras – the Colburn, USC, UCLA,” he says. “So every minute that I’m outside L.A. Opera in the next six or seven weeks will be spent with children.”

And then, almost as a parenthetical aside, Conlon confides, “By the way, I don’t take a penny for any of this. These are concerts where I have donated myself to the productions absolutely because I wanted to see it happen. So as you can see, it’s a matter of passion for me and a matter of conviction that this get done, and it has to get done on a shoestring. That’s one of the problems in times of economic crisis. The stuff that’s a little bit out of center gets put aside, and I didn’t want Benjamin Britten to be put aside. I don’t think anybody, any city, is doing as much as L.A. – maybe London.

“So I’m very proud of L.A., and that’s one of the things I love about my new life in Los Angeles. People are open. You can actually do something. It doesn’t have to have been done before.”

For up-to-date information on Los Angeles’ ongoing Britten 100/LA celebration, visit www.Britten100LA.org/.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.