Tenor makes Britten cycle a poignant journey with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra

October 2, 2022 at 12:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Omar Najmi performed Britten’s Les Illuminations with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Saturday night in Newton.

“I alone have the key to this savage parade,” the soloist sings in Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. 

That line conveys the essence of a 1939 song cycle that unfolds in a startling tale of sensation and destruction. But for tenor Omar Najmi and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the work offers a glimpse into the very nature of human isolation. 

Guest conducted by David Angus to open the ensemble’s 45th season, Britten’s music struck a balance between exuberance and anguish at the Second Church in Newton on Saturday night.

Les Illuminations is like an extrovert’s Winterreise, with its final evocation of gloom and despair borne of narcissism rather than rejection. Prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud reveal a character driven by superficialities. While at first elated to the point of rapture by the sights and sounds of the city, the protagonist gradually descends into bitterness over clutter, noise, and rampant stupidity.

If the cycle ultimately feels Kafka-esque, Britten’s music suggests a surprising sympathy. The score retains a lyricism and humor even in light of its spare, generally dissonant canvas. Britten achieves this effect through the simplest means. Some movements involve little more than two chords tossed between sections. Yet the tenor makes it all into a poignant emotional journey, as was the case Saturday.

A regular with Boston Lyric Opera, Najmi sang with passionate assurance. His voice rang valiantly in the opening “Fanfare.” “Villes” was likewise bright and gleeful. Najmi found pomp and swagger in “Royauté” as well as the bold power of “Marine.”

His clarion tenor also realized the full scale of the character’s gradual mental decline. “Phrase” and “Antique” showcased him in ethereal distance, lofting a faint melody over the strings. “Interlude,” with its cold restatement of the opening line, conveyed disquieting mystery. His singing in “Being Beauteous” was appropriately bold, even boastful. All came to a head in the impish “Parade” before “Départ” concluded the cycle in utter desolation. Throughout, Angus, the conductor for Boston Lyric Opera, mined every shade and shift in mood.

Brahms’s Serenade No. 1, which closed Saturday’s program, brought complementary sweep and grandeur. Composed in 1858, this symphony-in-all-but-name channels a somewhat uncharacteristic bucolic whimsey throughout its six movements.

The conductor’s swift tempos delivered most of the musical rewards early on. The opening Allegro coursed urgently while the mysteries of the development section still carried buoyant energy. The hymn-like strains of the Adagio flowered in the ensemble, revealing a playfulness that looked ahead to Mahler. Angus also mined the delicate charms from the brief Menuetto.

The first of the two Scherzos, taken at a generous lilt, retained its requisite depth and gravity. But problems crept into the second, where strings and winds struggled to keep their lines locked onto Angus’s beat. A similar lack of focus also marred the Rondo, which threatened to come apart before limping to the concluding bars.

Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat, Op. 7, which opened the concert, fared better. At only seven minutes, this score by the 17-year-old composer bears Mozartean balance and grace.

That was evident from the opening, where flutes and oboes projected a stately theme before the lower winds entered the fray with greater dimension. Yet Agnus revealed flair and lyricism as he vividly shaped each line. There was momentary tension as well. Solo oboe and strings proved a foil for the other in the development. But the recapitulation resolved in a vibrant flourish finely fit for this mostly auspicious night.

The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra will present a benefit concert for Ukraine 7 p.m. October 16 at the Second Church in Newton. Program TBA. proarte.org


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