In 1921, composer William Walton and poet Edith Sitwell decided to team up for a little "entertainment" to be given at one of the soirees held at the home of Sitwell's brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell.
The result--the stylish, quirky "Facade" for a speaker declaiming Sitwell's experimental poems against an instrumental accompaniment--survived its hothouse origins and turned out to be one of the composer's most popular works.
Indeed, it's even considered sufficiently dignified and "of the Realm" to be included on the Pacific Symphony "Royal Gala" concert Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The concert is part of the Festival of Britain, a combination arts festival and retail promotion.
The work will be narrated by actress Lynn Redgrave and bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk.
"I've never done 'Facade' before," Shirley-Quirk said between rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he will be singing Rangoni, the Jesuit priest, in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godounov" the night before he sings in Costa Mesa.
"It's a new adventure," he said. "It's not easy. It's very, very fast. . . . I'm moderately used to narrating in public, although the balances are totally different when you're speaking and when you're singing.
"When you sing, you spend more time on a note, and therefore it penetrates an orchestral texture better. When you speak, everything is much more staccato and short. You have a much greater problem in getting through an orchestral texture. The Walton is scored for a fairly small orchestra, which does not necessarily mean that it's easy to penetrate.
"I sometimes need--and suspect I will need in Costa Mesa--amplification for the speaking part, but not for the singing parts."
Shirley-Quirk also will sing an aria from Mozart's "Die Zauberflote" and works by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Such repertory, particularly under circumstances of the festival, raises questions of whether Shirley-Quirk should be considered a specialist in British music.
"Why shouldn't I be a British specialist?" he said. "I'm British. There's a lot of wonderful British music. Very early on, I got associated with that, and I'm happy to have been associated with that, particularly with the works of (Benjamin) Britten.
"But I don't regard myself as a British specialist anymore. I think more I would regard myself as a lieder specialist, if I had to put a label on myself, which I would hate to have to do."
Although the program is part of the Festival of Britain, Shirley-Quirk knew little about that aspect of the concert.
"I am indeed in the dark about the festival," he said. "Even though I'm in America, I'm some 3,000 miles away, and I don't know a great deal of what's going on. They just contacted me quite recently, about six weeks ago. It fits in perfectly with 'Boris.' "
Shirley-Quirk was born in Liverpool in 1931 and began his career as a chemistry teacher. Friends who had heard him sing, however, urged him to try a career as a singer. Early in those efforts, he was heard by Britten and later went on to create roles in the composer's "Curlew River," "The Burning Fiery Furnace," "The Prodigal Son" and "Death in Venice."
"Music was always there, all my life," Shirley-Quirk said. "I can't remember a moment when it wasn't there. I started singing at the age of 9 in a church choir. That was my basic musical training until I got to the university."
But the baritone called working with Britten the "most stimulating experience of my life."
"To work with a pair of musicians, Britten and (his long-term companion, tenor Peter) Pears together," he said, "I think that was my real music school, just absorbing their ideas of musicianship and dedication that are necessary to make the work a success."
What: Pacific Symphony "Royal Gala."
When: Saturday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.
Wherewithal: $35, $55, $75 for the concert only; $250 and $500 for concert and post-concert dinner.
Where to Call: (714) 556-2787.
* MUSIC LISTINGS, Page 21.