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Give peace a chance: The Britt Festival’s ode to Ukraine

BFO and Teddy Abrams performed music by Ukrainian composers Mykhailo Verbytsky and Mykola Lysenko alongside Copland, Mazzoli, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Elgar, Pärt, and Randall Thompson.


Teddy Abrams conducting Britt Festival Orchestra in Jacksonville. Photo by Josh Morell.
Teddy Abrams conducting Britt Festival Orchestra in Jacksonville. Photo by Josh Morell.

In response to the war in Ukraine, Teddy Abrams and the Britt Festival Orchestra presented a concert on June 26 centered on the theme of peace. Their program at the Britt Music & Art Festival in Jacksonville drew from a wide variety of composers and styles, including a couple of Ukrainian pieces. Despite the hot weather in Southern Oregon, which hit 107 degrees earlier in the day, a large audience appreciated music that sought to unite humanity. 

Celebrating its 60th season, the Britt Music & Arts Festival has flourished since its founding in 1963 by trombonist John Trudeau, who was a member of the Portland Symphony (now the Oregon Symphony). He was the festival’s music director until 1988 when James DePreist took over. DePreist was followed by Peter Bay, who led the festival from 1993 to 2013. Teddy Abrams began his tenure in 2014 when he also started at the helm of the Louisville Orchestra. 

Under Abrams’ influence, the festival presents a healthy mix of beloved repertory and new music, including world premieres. Its Juneteenth celebration presented an all-African-American program; a recent concert featured Davóne Tines, a rising star with a huge vocal range, and a thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

Davóne Tines with BFO. Photo by Jeremy Holmes.

Abrams and the festival orchestra opened Sunday’s concert by playing the Ukrainian National Anthem, which was written by Mykhailo Verbytsky in 1863. Its robust and noble melody stirred the audience to stand, and set the tone for an evening of music that would strive to be more than just entertainment.

The next piece, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, highlighted the orchestra’s brass section. Abrams directed its members, which stretched across the front of the stage. Using precise and energetic gestures, Abrams elicited a forceful and exciting statement, including terrific blasts from the percussion. 

Copeland’s Fanfare was followed by These Worlds In Us by Missy Mazzoli. Featuring gamelan scales and glissandos in the strings, this piece was dedicated to Mazzoli’s father, who served in the Vietnam War. I wish that the music could have gotten quieter for the introspective passages and also to create more dynamic contrast with the louder passages–I could barely hear the melodica (mouth-keyboard instruments). Perhaps the placement of the microphones or their associated sound levels should’ve been adjusted a bit more.

The string section created a thoroughly meditative atmosphere with Fratres (Brothers) by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Its slow tempo and slightly austere texture evoked a sense of ritual that was wonderfully contemplative. Periodically the harmonic melodic line would stop so that only the low drone and the beat of the claves could be heard, all of which added to the timeless quality of the piece. The last measure gently faded away as if a procession were moving towards the sunset.

The orchestra played the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, which is known as the “Little Russian” (a moniker for Ukraine). Tchaikovsky started writing the symphony while visiting Ukraine for his sister’s wedding on an estate near Kyiv. Urged on enthusiastically by Abrams, the BFO thoroughly enjoyed playing the finale, which contained “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song that the composer liked. The brass overwhelmed the strings a couple of times, but that, again, seemed to be due to the placement of the microphones. 

After intermission came the “Overture” to the opera Taras Bulba by Mykola Lysenko, the founding father of Ukrainian music. The opera relates the story of a Cossack warrior who defended his homeland of Ukraine against invading forces from Poland. It’s a tumultuous, dramatic story, and the orchestra vividly conveyed the struggle of a leader who was trying to establish freedom for his people. 

Abrams and company took an unusual approach with Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, both playing and singing it. Yep, some of the strings played while other members of the orchestra sang. Consequently, the piece never got to the climatic forte that it needed. It was an interesting experiment, but I would have preferred a choir for the vocal portion.

Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem received an ardent rendition from orchestra, but the sound of the brass washed over the strings now and then. Some real pianissimos would have helped to make the performance even better.

The concert concluded with the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It sounded noble, soothing, tragic, and majestic – a perfect sentiment for that piece – and a great way to send the audience home with hope.

BFO in 2022. Photo by Jeremy Holmes.
BFO in 2022. Photo by Jeremy Holmes.
James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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