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Classical Notes

‘Written on Skin’ recorded, Britten celebrated live

From left: Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer, and George Benjamin at Tanglewood in August.

Hilary Scott

From left: Augustine Mercante, Evan Hughes, Lauren Snouffer, and George Benjamin at Tanglewood in August.

One of last summer’s most important musical events was the first US performance of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin.” Premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, “Written on Skin” is a darkly gripping story of a tyrannical feudal lord, his illiterate wife, and the boy who enters their home to create a book celebrating the lord’s good deeds but in the process destroys the façade of their happiness. Violent complications ensue.

Even in concert form, as it came to Tanglewood, “Written on Skin” makes a shattering impression, its power the joint product of the story’s erotic energy, its detached narrative method, and the riot of color Benjamin weaves into the score. As Jeremy Eichler wrote in the Globe, “Much of the time the orchestra hovers around the vocal lines like an aura, ever-shifting in its tint yet always transparent. Displays of the ensemble’s collective brawn are few but when they come, they release fierce degrees of accumulated tension, and on Monday night . . . these sections roared with a fastidious fury.”

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After the premiere I received inquiries from many readers wanting to know whether the performance had been recorded and whether it would be made available in one form or another. The answer to both questions is yes. WQXR, the New York-based classical music station, is streaming the Aug. 12 Ozawa Hall performance of “Written on Skin” on Q2, its online station devoted to music of living composers. It debuted there on Nov. 5 and will be available for six months.!/series/q2/

Days of Britten

There’s been a strong uptick in performances of Benjamin Britten’s music this year and for an obvious reason: 2013 marks the centenary of the English composer’s birth. Still, events over the next two weekends show an unusually strong Britten presence, even for this celebratory year.

Sunday at 3 p.m. Seraphim Singers perform his ever-popular “Hymn to St. Cecilia” in Mission Hill ( At around the same time, cellist Cora Swenson will dig into Britten’s First Cello Suite at the Chromatic Club of Boston, a private performance society that spotlights young musicians ( An hour later, the Harvard University Choir and a new Harvard-based chamber orchestra, River Charles Ensemble, will team up for Britten’s cantata “St. Nicolas” ( .

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The stream turns into a torrent next weekend. On Friday evening both Trinity Church and Schola Cantorum will give performances of “St. Cecilia”

Saturday’s offerings include a selection of Britten’s vocal music at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, part of the JP Concerts series (, and the “Simple Symphony” on a concert by Boston Conservatory’s Hemenway Strings (

On Sunday afternoon, Coro Allegro, the chorus for Boston’s LGBT community, sings Britten’s “Cantata Misericordium” (; that evening, the Boston Chamber Music Society’s program includes his Cello Sonata, Op. 65, an underplayed masterpiece composed for Mstislav Rostropovich (

These two weekends are really just a sample; there are plenty of other performances coming up. Were it possible, I’d be at every one. The value of these anniversary years is that they act as a spur to ensembles to give themselves over to composers like Britten, often admired more than they’re actually performed. And while some of his works have become repertory staples, they are outnumbered by the worthy items that remain underplayed, and sometimes unplayed.

My advice is to catch them now, before they recede back into obscurity, awaiting the next big birthday to reappear.

David Weininger can be reached at
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