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A Britten Holiday: Music for Christmas by Benjamin Britten + His Only Organ Works, Cantate Chamber Singers, Gisèl Becker, dir.; Eric Plutz, organ - [OAR-945] $15.98

A Britten Holiday
Music for the Holiday Season composed by Benjamin Britten

Cantate Chamber Singers
Gisèle Becker, Music Director
Eric Plutz, Organist and Pianist


Benjamin Britten: Jubilate Deo in E-flat
Benjamin Britten: The Sycamore Tree
Benjamin Britten: The Oxen
Benjamin Britten: The Holly and the Ivy

Benjamin Britten: Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria, Eric Plutz, organist.

Benjamin Britten: A Boy Was Born from  A Boy Was Born, Op. 3
Benjamin Britten: Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour from  A Boy Was Born, Op. 3
Benjamin Britten: The Three Kings from A Boy Was Born, Op. 3
Benjamin Britten: In the Bleak Mid-Winter from A Boy Was Born, Op. 3

Benjamin Britten: King Herod and the Cock
Benjamin Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin
Benjamin Britten: A New Year Carol
Benjamin Britten: Antiphon
Benjamin Britten: Chorale after an old French Carol

Benjamin Britten: Village Organist’s Piece, completed by Colin Matthews, Eric Plutz, organist

Benjamin Britten: Christ’s Nativity from Christ’s Nativity
Benjamin Britten: Sweet was the Song from Christ’s Nativity, Carrie Lee Eyler, mezzo-soprano
Benjamin Britten: Preparations from Christ’s Nativity
Benjamin Britten: New Prince, New Pomp, from Christ’s Nativity, Deborah Sternberg, soprano
Benjamin Britten: Carol of King Cnut from Christ’s Nativity

Celebrating the centennial of composer Benjamin Britten's birth, the Cantate Chamber Singers, a well recognized choral group in Washington, D. C. as led by Gisèle Becker since 1994, sings a music composed by Britten for the Christmas season, including several of his earlier works. As well, organist Eric Plutz plays Britten's only two works for organ (including one of only two CD performances of the unfinished "Village Organist's Piece" later completed by Colin Matthews, and also accompanies on piano or organ. The organ heard is the Aeolian-Skinner at Church of the Epiphany, Washington, D.C., where Plutz was organist and choirmaster until he took the post as Princeton University Organist and instructor in organ.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Throughout his life, Benjamin Britten prided himself on his ability to write innovatively for amateurs and children as well as for professionals. He eschewed the trend among many of his colleagues of writing music so difficult that the general public could not perform it or even listen to it with any understanding. Britten read poetry for pleasure, and he took great care in choosing texts for his vocal music. He studied the long-neglected works of Henry Purcell to learn how to set the English language to music; he also accompanied singers on piano, becoming intimate with the nuances of text setting in various languages. All of these facets make Britten's music rewarding for singers and audiences alike.

The pieces we have chosen for this centennial celebration span Britten's life. Early on, he found high school coursework barely tolerable; what he really wanted to do was to compose and perform. At age 16, in 1930, he had already been studying composition with Frank Bridge for more than two years. "A Hymn to the Virgin" and "The Sycamore Tree" both date from that year; the latter was revised in 1968. Christ's Nativity (originally titled Thy King's Birthday) will be a happy discovery for many listeners. Britten also wrote it during his school days, but the work was not published as a set until 1994. You might recognize parts of Robert Southwell's poem "New Prince, New Pomp" from Britten's better-known work A Ceremony of Carols.

A Boy Was Bom is structured as a theme and variations for unaccompanied chorus. Britten began work on it just before his nineteenth birthday (1932), and it was premiered and published in 1934. This work shows a young Britten rebelliously but quietly embracing traditional musical devices (forms, gestures, and tonal centers), while already speaking in his own harmonic language. We perform here the theme (based on a minor third) and three of the variations. "Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour" was sung at the funeral of Britten's father, who died just a few months after the premiere.

Many of Britten's compositions are of an occasional nature, written with a specific time, place, and ensemble in mind. Britten wrote "Jubilate Deo in E-flat" for the choir of St.Mark's Church on North Audley Street in London, continuing his work with them after they participated in the first performance of A Boy Was Born. "A New Year Carol" is from a collection of songs for children called Friday Afternoons that Britten wrote between 1933 and 1935 for the boys' school where his brother Robert was the headmaster. Britten set his erstwhile friend W.H. Auden's "Chorale after an old French Carol" for a 1944 BBC radio program called "Poet's Christmas" - Donald Mitchell has called Auden's enigmatic poem "a statement of religious belief for a post-Freudian generation." Another occasional piece is the "Antiphon" on a text of George Herbert. Britten wrote it in 1956 for the centenary celebration of St. Michael's College, Tenbury Wells; the college choir gave the first performance at an evensong on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, an appropriate setting for this poem with the contrasting choruses of angels and humans.

"The Holly and the Ivy" (1957) and "The Oxen" were both commissions. "The Oxen" is a setting of a famous Thomas Hardy poem and was commissioned by the East Coker Women's Institute in 1967. This appears to be an unusual case where Britten did not stumble upon the poem himself; he was sent a selection of text suggestions by members of area Women's Institutes. In this piece, the piano imitates a chiming clock. The little-known "King Herod and the Cock" (1962) is another example of Britten's sensitivity to his performers. It is an arrangement of what was to be a larger work written for the London Boys' Singers; as the work in progress began to prove too difficult for the ensemble, Britten made a shorter, simpler version.

We include two organ pieces performed by Eric Plutz, who has had a long association with Cantate. "Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria" dates from 1946; here, Britten employs a plainchant theme from Vittoria's 1585 motet "Ecce sacerdos magnus." The incomplete manuscript of the "Village Organist's Piece" dates from the early 1940s; it was completed by Colin Matthews.

Known during his lifetime primarily as composer of operas, Britten has emerged as a master of the choral miniature. In rehearsing and performing his music, we have found that from his earliest works through the end of his life, Britten lived up to his own ideal that a composer "should make his music sound inevitable and right."

Cantate Chamber Singers
Cantate Chamber Singers, acknowledged as one of the Washington, D.C., area's finest small choral ensembles, performs a broad range of great Western choral literature spanning six centuries. Under the artistic direction of Gisèle Becker since 1994, Cantate is recognized especially for its skilled interpretation of Baroque style, championing of neglected masterpieces, adventurous programming of 20th and 21st century music, and the commissioning and premiering of new works. Through its biennial Young Composers' Contest, the group encourages emerging compositional talent nationwide. Cantate's performances, known for their virtuosity, aim at the same time to create the greatest possible intimacy between performers and audience. Included in Cantate's annual concert seasons have been guest appearances with the National Philharmonic, Chacabuco at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Dumbarton Concert Series, the Folger Consort Series, the Mansion at Strathmore, the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Guild of Organists' National and Regional Conventions, the BlackRock Center for the Arts, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, the Virginia Chamber Orchestra, the 21st Century Consort, and Bowen McCauley Dance, and at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Cantate Chamber Singers has been awarded the Choralis Foundation's 2011 "Ovation" Award for Creative Programming, and has been showcased in the "Front Row Washington" broadcast series on Classical WETA 90.9 FM.

Gisèle Becker

Gisèle Becker, an esteemed Washington, D. C., area choral conductor, has received high accolades from critics, audiences, and rofessional colleagues for her vision of musical excellence and commitment to imaginative programming. The Washington Post wrote that Ms. Becker "has molded her group into a well-balanced and responsive ensemble... [presenting] focused, intelligent music-making." The Post called her 2003 performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor "a version as transforming as it was bold . . . riveting in its fresh, impassioned and personal vision." Music Director of Cantate Chamber Singers since January 1994, she serves also as Director of Choral Activities at The George Washington University, conducting the University Singers and Chamber Choir. For 26 years Ms. Becker was Assistant Conductor of the Washington Bach Consort, and she was also chorus master for the Cathedral Choral Society. Ms. Becker's extensive experience in choral preparation has included the Folger Consort's performances of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia, as well as Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd for guest conductor Robert Shaw and Haydn's The Creation for Leonard Slatkin, both with the Cathedral Choral Society. She prepared the Washington Bach Consort for its performances of Handel's Messiah with conductor Robert King, for Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers with Harry Christophers, and Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4 and Sofia Gubaidulina's The Canticle of the Sun, both for Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Becker has served on the faculties of The Catholic University of America, Trinity College in Washington, D.C., and Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va. She received her bachelor of music degree from The Catholic University of America and her master of music degree from George Mason University, and she has completed coursework for her doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Maryland. In addition to her conducting activities, she is actively engaged as a recording producer, a festival adjudicator, and a clinician.

Eric Plutz
Eric Plutz is University Organist and Instructor of Organ at Princeton University. There, his responsibilities include playing for weekly services at the Chapel, academic ceremonies, and solo concerts and accompanying the Chapel Choir in services and concerts. He also coordinates the weekly After Noon Concert Series at the University Chapel. In addition, Mr. Plutz is rehearsal accompanist for the Westminster Symphonic Choir at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Princeton Pro Musica, both in Princeton, N.J. Mr. Plutz, who "performs with gusto, flair, clarity, and strong yet pliant rhythmic control" (James Hildreth for The American Organist), has several recordings on the Pro Organo label. As an organ concert soloist, Mr. Plutz has been a featured artist at two Regional Conventions of the Ameican Guild of Organists (Region III in 2007, Regions ! and II in 2011), and was a featured performer for the 2007 Ameircan Handel Society Conference. At the 2010 National AGO Convention in Washington, D. C., Mr. Plutz performed twice in collaboration with two local groups. Recent performances include several broadcasts on all-Bach concerts on WWFM in the Princeton/Trenton area, broadcasts on WRTI's "Wanamaker Organ Hour, and an appearance at Philadelphia's Verizon Hall with Helmuth Rilling directing. He had perviously served as organist/choirmaster at the Church of the Epiphany, Washington, D. C., for ten years.

A Britten Holiday: Music for Christmas by Benjamin Britten + His Only Organ Works, Cantate Chamber Singers, Gisèl Becker, dir.; Eric Plutz, organ
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