Brattleboro Concert Choir invites its audience to have ‘Ecstatic Visions’

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Concert Choir presents Richard Blackford's rapturous “Mirror of Perfection” and Benjamin Britten's arresting masterwork “Rejoice in the Lamb” on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 7:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. at the First Baptist Church.

The concert, directed by Susan Dedell, features soprano Junko Watanabe, contralto Jennifer Hansen, tenor Marc Winer, and baritone Peter Shea, and introduces 11-year-old soprano Elle Jamieson as treble soloist.

“Rejoice in the Lamb” is one of Britten's best-known choral works. At the heart of this colorful cantata is an amazing text, taken from a poem written by Christopher Smart (1722–1771) some time during the six years that Smart was confined in an insane asylum. It depicts, in the most original manner, the idiosyncratic praise and worship of God by all created beings and things.

“I have loved Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb' since I first sang it many years ago. At that time, I was struck by the unique force of the combination of language and music, which moves me every time I approach it,” says Dedell.

She adds: “In a very simple, almost childlike way, it is filled with ecstatic visions of a world in which all beings move towards perfection and bliss. And this is made more wondrous by the heartbreaking circumstances under which the words were written.”

Many scholars believe that Smart's confinement in the asylum was as much due to his father-in-law's loathing of him, and his substantial financial debts, as it was to his supposed religious mania. Poor Smart was abandoned during this time by most of his friends and family, but was allowed to keep his cat, Jeoffrey, whose excellence is extolled in a few lines of the text. Britten chose to set these words to music in a soprano solo intended to be sung by a child.

“I'm very happy to be working with Elle Jamieson on this part,” says Dedell. “She possesses an unselfconscious, natural manner of singing, and a beautifully focused purity of sound. I also think her love of animals comes through when she sings about the divine nature of Jeoffrey.”

Another principal feature of “Rejoice in the Lamb” is the brilliant organ part, played in this performance by organist Clark Anderson. The organ provides a constant variety of movement and drama, and Anderson is known for an extraordinary sense of tone color.

Although the Britten composition is well known and often performed, Richard Blackford's “Mirror of Perfection” is making its New England debut in these January concerts.

The “Mirror of Perfection” took London audiences by storm seven years ago at its premiere, when it was described as “a powerful cantata of lavish beauty, clothed in a radiance of strings, harp, horns, and percussion.”

Setting the little-known poetry of St. Francis of Assisi, the music fully captures the passion and compassion of the famous saint who was known as a fanatic of love.

“We rightly think of St. Francis of Assisi as a champion of the poor, and a great friend to all creatures,” observes Dedell. “But he was also a mystic, subject to a variety of transcendent experiences - visions, voices, trances - that resulted in great outpourings of poetry.”

These love poems to God are highly charged, passionate, even erotic, Dedell says. She adds that Blackford's “Mirror of Perfection” perfectly conveys “this overwhelming sense of rapture, longing, and completion.”

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