One of my favorite things about Park Slope, Brooklyn, is the Chip Shop, which serves a menu revolving around a deep fryer that turns out what I’d argue is the best fish and chips in New York. Call me sentimental, but I’ve been heading there a lot lately — certainly more than the American Heart Association would advise — as something of a pre-opera ritual. Perhaps the perspicacious, the Bobby-capped, the Union-Jacked or the mere chavs among you have noted the confluence of musical events over the past few weeks that might put one in the mood, as it were, for all things British. Manhattanites have been privy, of late, to a number of musical offerings that ostensibly represent touchstones of the entire British classical-music tradition, in — what we’re meant to believe — all its stunted glory.
Those of you who had a chance to see the musically thrilling new production of Peter Grimes at the Met witnessed what can unequivocally be called the most important operatic work to come out of England during the twentieth century. (That it happened to be staged in an antiseptic production by a British director, John Doyle, who actually lives in the fishing town of Hastings, seemed to do it few favors, in my opinion.) The opera’s creator, the redoubtable Benjamin Britten, is generally esteemed — in a truism that seems to have become something of a certainty in classical music — as the most important British composer since Henry Purcell. Hopefully, for the sake of a frame of reference, more than a few of you also managed to catch Mark Morris‘s fantastically whimsical New York City Opera staging of the earlier composer’s King Arthur — a work technically without operatic credential, as Purcell’s offerings amount to incidental music for the 1691 Dryden play. Likewise, those who visited Carnegie Hall last weekend may have caught a concert or two involving the wildly and polymathically talented composer Thomas Adès, who’s been deemed as something of an uneasy successor to Britten. In fact, Adès is the current artistic director of the Britten-founded Aldeburgh Festival, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the two composers’ compositional styles happen to share just a few passing similarities and tonal piquancies. Still Adès himself has infamously remarked that he does not consider Britten a major twentieth-century opera composer. (Yikes.) On Friday night, Adès deftly led the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a breathless performance of Irish composer Gerald Barry‘s frenetic opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit; on Saturday, Adès’s own elegantly heterogeneous compositions stood in the spotlight, as he played piano and conducted the BCMG in works that included excerpts from his opera The Tempest, which has received about as warm a critical reception as any new opera could hope to. (The Met recently announced that it intends to stage a new production of the opera as part of its 2012-13 season.)
The overlapping of these offerings, to a certain degree, was likely nothing more than a happy coincidence. But still one could get the sense that the critical and administrative establishments can’t help but underpin the idea that the history of British music effectively began with Purcell and continues only through Adès because the concept seems so neatly wrapped and easily digestible. Adès — who spoke before Friday’s concert in a shockingly deep bass voice (perhaps this is why he’s so press shy?) — for his part, seems to wear the mantle of Composer of the Royal British Empire rather uneasily. A Times profile of Adès quoted the composer and Guildhall professor Robert Saxon as saying: “We never seem to get over looking for the next Benjamin Britten. [...] It’s a stupid game. It’s an English disease that goes with the class system, and I’m not surprised that Tom has been pushed into that position.”
If Britain’s classical music scene does indeed owe its collective conception to ideas about class differentials, I’m not convinced that — in this day and age, in America — we should be buying into such facile notions about musical monarchies. The Bard Festival, for instance, admirably devoted its efforts last summer to reconsidering the music of Edward Elgar, with notable performances of his symphonic and chamber works, as well as his prodigious oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Likewise, where, may I ask, was the due praise for the recent New York premiere of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, minimalist Michael Nyman’s genius adaptation of the Oliver Sacks book? After a euphoric reception at Glimmerglass in 2004, and subsequent performances at City Opera, why does it seem like reviving Richard Rodney Bennett‘s eerie atonal opera, The Mines of Sulphur, for a New York stage would take nothing less than a miracle?
My point is, that however enormous the respective merits of Adès, Britten and Purcell as composers, the act of considering them an uncomplicated succession of musical voices rather than as part of a continuum strikes me as something along the lines of self-flagellation. This all-or-nothing price-or-pauper prospect must make being a young composer in Britain a decidedly daunting endeavor. What harbor shelters peace indeed.