As Benjamin Britten's 2013 centennial year loomed, Lyric Fest was all but sure to build a concert around it: This song festival's typical juxtaposition of spoken commentary and sung music would seem ideal for the creative and personal relationship between the composer and his partner/muse, tenor Peter Pears.
That's not just because Britten wrote so much great music for Pears. Their lives took them in such separate geographic directions - Pears toured while Britten stayed home composing - that an epistolary trail was bound to exist.
On Sunday at the Academy of Vocal Arts, a trio of singers plus actor Jim Bergwell made a cradle-to-the-grave traversal of the composer's life. Britten already was composing when writing to his mother at age 9. And when heart disease kept him from Pears' late-life Metropolitan Opera debut in Death in Venice, there were letters, shortly before his 1976 death, embodying the cumulative emotions of their multi-decade relationship.
Singing on Sunday was mostly excellent, the sequencing of music and letters was brilliant, and the overall emotional impact - ending with a sing-along "God Moves in Mysterious Ways" from Britten's cantata St. Nicolas - was overwhelming.
Musically, the concert felt no great need to be comprehensive. Britten's great opera Peter Grimes was discussed, but the greater Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings wasn't mentioned. The priority was to create a through line with music that both illustrated and commented upon each particular stage in Britten's life. A letter to baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was followed by music written for him in the War Requiem, for example. Amazingly, pianist and Lyric Fest artistic director Laura Ward made piano reductions work in ways that distilled rather than reduced ideas.
Britten's later compositions can be cerebral, requiring several hearings before a visceral relationship with the music is possible. But the selections made here - whether from the Spring Symphony or the Holy Sonnets of John Donne - took care to show him at his most lyrical: With the concert unfolding at a steady clip, contemplation wasn't possible. There were seldom-heard early works, several with a strong French accent. And events of his early years have better talking points - in 1940s Brooklyn Heights, his housemate was Gypsy Rose Lee - than later ones when he holed up in Aldeburgh, England, writing masterpieces.
Each of the young singers - soprano Kelly Ann Bixby, tenor William Ferguson, and baritone Jarrett Ott - had many interpretive virtues. None of them has achieved the vocal glamour stage of their development, but one might not notice that amid the literacy, intelligence, and overall commitment they brought to their performances. Wherever their careers take them, they have the satisfaction of knowing their concert on a freezing late-fall afternoon forever changed and enriched one's perception of one of the 20th century's greatest musical partnerships.