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A Grammy Nominee’s Main Gig

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Keith Weber

Keith Weber’s professional bio lists his many musical hats: “choral and orchestral conductor, vocal coach, choral clinician, organist, pianist, harpsichordist, and collaborator.” Now he adds “Grammy nominee” to the list with the announcement that Houston’s Ars Lyrica has been nominated for their recording Hasse: Marc Antonio e Cleopatra (Matthew Dirst, conductor; Jamie Barton and Ava Pine, principal singers). Weber served as the producer for the recording.

For years, however, Weber has been producing eclectic music concerts through Grace Song, Inc., a non-profit music organization he founded and for which he serves as artistic director. Incorporated in 1999, Grace Song presents musical programs of works that “live in the cracks,” as Weber describes it. “We do stuff that nobody gets around to, which is the literature which is closest to my heart.” It’s also programming that is more than someone getting up and singing a bunch of songs. “They have a particular focus, they have a particular narrative integrity. When you go to a Grace Song, Inc., concert, you’re taken on a journey somewhere.”

Grace Song also premieres new work. They just recently received their largest grant to date, which will allow them to commission a new 45-minute work about Mary Magdalene, incorporating the latest scholarship on the biblical character. This has a planned premiere for the fall of 2011.

But before the Grammy Awards are announced on February 13, you have the opportunity to see Weber as pianist and conductor for Canticle I, the first of a five-year cycle of concerts built around one of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles. Here, we talk a bit about that first concert (which features a super-secret surprise guest singer), the series to follow in the next few years, and Benjamin Britten in general.

Neil Ellis Orts: Let’s talk a little bit about Benjamin Britten. This first canticle was written for his lover Peter Pears. Britten seems to have quite a few vocal pieces written for tenors . . .
Keith Weber: He does—he wrote a great deal for his partner. He was pretty bold—pretty out for the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. That was really ahead of its time, but nobody cared because everybody knew the greatness of his writing. That’s the trump card in any kind of discriminatory situation.

This first concert is from Britten’s setting of Francis Quarles’ poem, “My Beloved Is Mine and I Am His.” This poem was taken from the biblical Song of Solomon, yes?
Yes, it is all about the erotic nature of religious love, about how the love of God is, on some level, as sensuous as erotic love. There’s something really sexy about church, and the reason that it has such unfortunate expressions is because nobody is honest about it to start with. This poem of Quarles and all the [other music] we’ll be doing is refreshingly open about this.

And this Canticle I concert is the first of a five-year cycle built around Britten’s work.
There are five Britten canticles. The second is a setting of Abraham and Isaac, the Chester miracle play. That’s going to be a whole program about obedience—not just Abraham’s, but also Isaac’s. His is the key obedience in that situation.

The third is a morbid and horrifying thing called “Still Falls the Rain.” It’s post-World War II agony music. It’s going to be gruesome, but it won’t be without redemption.

Canticle IV is a marvelous T.S. Eliot setting of “The Journey of the Magi.” It’s the poem about the kings coming to the manger and realizing that their whole gig is up. They go back to their kingdoms, but they’re unsure of their future. It’s a perfectly wonderful poem about the uncomfortable questions the incarnation poses in our lives. So there will be concert of interesting Magi literature and transformational literature.

Then the last one is a tough one. It’s a poem called “The Death of St. Narcissus” and it’s about masturbation. I did this in Tyler several years ago, and I couldn’t really have a masturbation concert.  So I had a fake saint concert, songs about various fake saints.

So this is going to be an adventure. It’s my second time of putting these concerts together. We did a whole five-year cycle previously, and we’re not going to repeat any of them. This is all going to be different.

But still built around these canticles.
Still built around these canticles, which are a wellspring. Ask any really good singer and they’ll tell you the Britten canticles are springs of inspiration. Not only to sing, but to learn the beauty and the musical craftsmanship. You never stop learning [from them]. Abraham and Isaac is a twelve-and-a-half minute miracle. It is composed so shrewdly. The tenor is Abraham and the counter-tenor is Isaac, but when they sing together, it’s the voice of God. It’s just so simple it’s breathtaking. This is one characteristic of Britten’s compositional style: it’s economy and expressiveness, simultaneously. He takes the least possible fuss to make the most effect, generating the most drama with the least material.

And just the fact that he understands singers and his vocal lines are a joy for everyone to sing and a joy to play—any professional musician who encounters Britten grows through the experience of it. I look for Britten pieces to do and re-do. Recently I was in Tennessee and played a big organ and choir cantata that I’ve played 16 or 17 times, and the freshness and originality were just stark. I couldn’t believe how amazing this music is that I’ve played over and over and over.

I remember when he died in 1976. I was sitting in a car with my mother in front of the dry cleaner and I was sixteen years old. They just announced on the radio that Benjamin Britten had died, and I thought, shouldn’t there be a bigger deal than somebody just saying that? I’d heard all my teachers speak of him with only utmost reverence.

I for one continue to grow as a person and a musician through my encounters with his writing.

To close out, tell us about the singers.
The two sopranos are both [vocal coaching] clients of mine—wonderful singers. Maureen Papovich is originally from Baltimore and currently in College Station, and Julia Fox is a native of Houston who is just lovely. The tenor is Michael Kelly, of whom I’m incredibly fond—although these days he’s not a tenor, he’s turning into a baritone. So this is going to be his last appearance as a tenor. The mezzo is a woman named Natalie Arduino. She’s from Dallas and is one of my very favorite singers. I’ve used her continuously for 20 years. She’s one of the finest singers I’ve ever known. And also [appearing is] David Grogan, my favorite baritone who now lives in the mid-cities between Dallas and Ft. Worth. He is masterful—there’s not a thing he cannot do with his voluptuous baritone. So these are five singers that I know like the back of my hand. Then the special guest singer, whom you can’t name, but you can say that she’s been, for 25 years, associated with the Metropolitan Opera and every major opera house in the world. It’s going to be very exciting to hear her stand up and sing.

Canticle I will be presented on January 8, 7:30pm, at Christ Church Cathedral’s Latham Auditorium (1117 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston). The concert is free and open to the public.

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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