Recital commemorates Britten’s ideals

Grace Zhao rehearses for the “Peace in the Heart of War” faculty recital, which was held Sunday. Zhao played piano alongside tenor Jonathan Mack and soprano Carol Stephenson with Kristy Morrell on French horn. / photo by Sarah Golden
Grace Xia Zhao rehearses for the “Peace in the Heart of War” faculty recital, which was held Sunday. Zhao played piano alongside tenor Jonathan Mack and soprano Carol Stephenson with Kristy Morrell on French horn. / photo by Sarah Golden

Kristina Bugante
Arts Editor

A faculty recital found “Peace in the Heart of War” with selected works from English composer and war pacifist Benjamin Britten Sunday in Morgan Auditorium.

The concert featured the vocal talents of tenor Jonathan Mack and soprano and music department associate Carol Stephenson, with artist-in-residence Grace Xia Zhao on piano.

“Benjamin Britten is the greatest composer for music in the English language in the 20th century,” Mack said prior to reciting the poem for the first piece, “Canticle III: Still falls the rain.”

“Still Falls the Rain,” a 1941 poem by British poet Edith Sitwell, is about the 1940 raids on London. The poem was set to the music of “Canticle III,” which is one out of Britten’s “Five Canticles.”

“Then – O He leape up to my God: who pulles me doune? See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament,” Mack proclaimed rather than sang.

Kristy Morrell, a faculty member at the University of Southern California School of Music, made an appearance with her French horn in “Canticle III.”

Towards the end of the piece, Morrell went offstage but continued playing, and the horn sounded faint as Mack sang the final words, “Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

The second piece of the night was a short excerpt from the “War Requiem,” Britten’s most well-known composition. “War Requiem” was written as a large scale piece with three soloists, a chamber orchestra, main orchestra, a choir, a boys’ choir and an organ in mind. But Mack and Zhao were still able to convey the grandeur of the composition with just vocals and a piano.

The third section of the concert highlighted Stephenson’s soprano voice in three of Britten’s folk songs, “Come You Not From Newcastle?” a melancholy “‘Tis the last rose of summer,” a familiar-sounding “O Waly, Waly” and a French-language “Fileuse.”

The final piece reunited Mack and Stephenson in “Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac,” which recounted the story of Abraham and Isaac. The canticle’s text, adapted from the Chester Mystery Plays, is from the 15th century. However, for the concert, a few of the words were changed into modern language for the audience to better understand.

Mack portrayed Abraham, Stephenson sang as Isaac and the piano played the role of God.

At the beginning of “Canticle II,” Mack and Stephenson both sang as God and faced each other, their placement bring their harmonies into one voice.

Britten wrote Isaac’s part as mezzo-soprano, even though Stephenson is a soprano.

“I’m going to pretend to be a mezzo-soprano for a little bit,” she said.

Mack and Stephenson fully embraced their roles, and Stephenson even pulled back her hair and changed into pants to play a young male.

“I just loved the last piece,” said Roger Auerbach, husband of President Devorah Lieberman.

“I felt they maintained a kind of intimacy with each other and the audience, which was really nice,” Los Angeles resident Barrington Smith-Seetachitt said about “Canticle II.”

Zhao’s piano playing was an audience favorite.

“Anything that Grace Zhao is connected to, I want to listen,” Auerbach said.

Santa Monica resident Janice Kim is a friend of Zhao’s and came to the concert to see her perform.

“Her playing was very beautiful,” Kim said. “She seemed really composed.”

Kristina Bugante can be reached at

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