This weekend will be perhaps the biggest in young tenor Eric Rehm’s entire musical life.
The junior voice performance and music education major will perform three times during a four-day celebration of English composer Benjamin Britten that begins Thursday at Illinois State. As the largest event in the U.S. celebrating what would have been Britten’s 100th birthday, Rehm’s talents will be on display not just in front of the College of Fine Arts, but the music community’s top Britten scholars too.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Rehm, who will get the rare chance to tackle both Britten’s antiwar masterpiece War Requiem and his own solo in a single weekend. Rehm has spent the entire fall semester getting to know Britten, whose challenging music can seem off-kilter or even strange on first listen, he says. But look deeper, he says, and everything happens for a reason in his music.
For example, Britten was gay but grew up in the United Kingdom when homosexuality was still illegal.
“A lot of that conflict and angst you can see a lot in his work,” said Rehm, who hopes to teach high school choir. “I love learning about composers, because you can see that there’s more to them than just their music.”
Rehm will be one of several hundred student, faculty, and community artists, as well as scholars, taking part in Benjamin Britten at 100: An American Centenary Symposium on Thursday through Sunday at Illinois State. For Britten fans, it’s an unprecedented gathering in scope, and for students like Rehm it’s a unique opportunity to perform side-by-side with their professors on some seriously challenging music.
The symposium features artists from across the College of Fine Arts. In addition to Rehm and the other musicians, the schedule includes theatre and dance performances, an exhibition at University Galleries in the Center for the Visual Arts, a film screening, and a scholarly conference bringing together British music researchers and Britten scholars from around the world, among other events, all on the Illinois State campus.
That collaborative spirit was inspired by Britten himself, said Assistant Professor Justin Vickers, an expert in 20th century British music, specifically Britten.
“We’re getting to emulate something that was really significant to him, which was to bring people together, to tear down the walls that would otherwise separate us, even institutionally. We’re coming together to celebrate an artist who was so pivotal for us,” said Vickers, a lead symposium organizer.
But why is Britten such an important figure in music, worthy of a four-day celebration?
Vickers points to War Requiem, an 85-90 minute epic piece of music that will be performed Thursday at Illinois State by around 200 singers, three soloists, and 112 orchestra members. It’s easily “one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever worked on,” said Rehm, who is part of the concert choir.
When first performed in 1962, the three War Requiem soloists were a German baritone, a Russian soprano, and a British tenor—a commentary on the toll of war, on all sides, in the wake of World War II.
Britten was a pacifist, and his antiwar requiem still resonates today, said Vickers.
“Britten really balked so many of the practices of the day—ostracizing and isolation,” he said. “He believed music is our universal language, and it’s going to bring us together. Music can be the mouthpiece for peace.”
Vickers organized the symposium with Music Professor Karyl Carlson; Dance Professor and College of Fine Arts Assistant Dean Laurie Merriman; and Music History Professor Vicki Pierce Stroeher from Marshall University. It’s been in the works since Vickers was hired at Illinois State ahead of the fall 2012 semester, when he and Carlson discovered their shared interest in staging the War Requiem on campus.
Since then, the symposium’s scope “kept growing and growing and growing, and no one ever said no,” Vickers said. A grant from the Britten-Pears Foundation—named for Britten and his longtime partner Peter Pears—helped support the symposium, as did grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Office of the Provost, the Sage Foundation, and the Alice and Fannie Fell Trust, among other key partners.
“This university is so supportive, and really wants to see faculty and students flourish,” Carlson said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.