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Curlew River

Benjamin Britten's 'Curlew River' comes to Santa Monica

April 25, 2013|By Mark Swed | Music Critic
  • Pianists Liam Viney, left, and Anna Grinberg open the Jacaranda Britten Festival at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica on April 7.
Pianists Liam Viney, left, and Anna Grinberg open the Jacaranda Britten… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Benjamin Britten wrote much peculiar music but little that is stranger than “Curlew River.”  

Struck by the Noh drama “Sumidagawa,” which the composer saw in Tokyo in 1956, Britten morphed that already odd “operatic” experience into a curious hybrid of Noh and church parable.

A ferryman tells a traveler the tale of a 12-year-old boy who died a year earlier. A madwoman, performed by a tenor in an exquisite mask, hops aboard and turns out to be the boy’s mother. A handful of musicians make unforgettably eerie sounds on their instruments; the ancient Western musical traditions shake hands with ancient Eastern ones, as Gregorian chant miraculously merges with Gagaku. And that’s not the only miracle on the Curlew River.

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Jacaranda, the New Music outfit in Santa Monica, had originally meant to stage the unstageable “Curlew River” as the highlight of its several offerings for Los Angeles' Britten/100 festival. Funding fell through and the small organization needed a Kickstarter campaign to make the performance happen.

Happen it will 8 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, but in concert form (which is pretty much what Britten wanted anyway). 

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