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Celebrating 100 Years of Benjamin Britten

From program notes by Betsy Schwarm, author of Classical Music Insights

The Colorado Symphony celebrates the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth with a performance of one of his most popular works, Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Originally written for a documentary film in 1946, Young Person’s Guide is a showpiece for the orchestra’s virtuosic players, showing off the tone, colors and capacities of the various sections of the orchestra. Formally titled Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, the piece was originally commissioned by the British Ministry of Education for a 1946 documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra. It is one of the most popular scores in children's music education, along with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Such a mission could have been accomplished with a very simple work, but such was not Britten’s plan. In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by each major family of instruments of the orchestra: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, and finally the percussion. Each variation then features a particular instrument in depth, in the same family order, moving through each family from high to low. So, for example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon; and so on, through the strings, brass, and finally the percussion. After the whole orchestra has been effectively taken to pieces in this way, it is reassembled using an original fugue, which starts with the piccolo, followed by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are re-introduced (with a strike on the gong) with Purcell's original melody.

The piece is scored for two flutes and piccolo, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra will be performed Jan 31-Feb 2 at Boettcher Concert Hall. Conducted by Peter Oundjian and featuring violinist Chee-Yun, this sublime audience-friendly concert finishes with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.

Peter Oundjian is the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated the Britten centennial this year with a fall season devoted to the performance of the composer’s works. He talks about his personal experience of meeting and performing for Britten in this video.

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