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UVic concert celebrates Britten centenary

What: A Britten Festival of Song: The Canticles, with the Aldeburgh Connection When/where: Saturday, 8 p.m., Phillip T.

What: A Britten Festival of Song: The Canticles, with the Aldeburgh Connection

When/where: Saturday, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, MacLaurin Building, UVic)

Tickets: Admission free

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th century’s greatest and most significant composers, and Victoria has not ignored this milestone.

Music by Britten has been performed this year by Pacific Opera Victoria, the Victoria Chamber Orchestra, the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Opera Studio and others. There is more to come next month, including the Victoria Symphony and the Lafayette String Quartet, and in an all-Britten concert at the University of Victoria.

A centenary venture of special note will take place Saturday evening at UVic. Titled A Britten Festival of Song: The Canticles, it is a program of solo-vocal and choral works presented under the authoritative auspices of two musicians for whom the composer is simply “Ben.”

They are Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, Toronto-based pianists and vocal coaches whose busy, varied and distinguished careers recently earned them appointments to the Order of Canada. Since 1982 they have directed their own performing organization, the Aldeburgh Connection, through which they have mounted more than 100 thematically unified programs of vocal and piano music, toured parts of Canada, the U.S. and England, broadcast on CBC Radio, and released half a dozen CDs.

Over the years, the Aldeburgh Connection has promoted many of Canada’s leading singers. One of them, local tenor Benjamin Butterfield, says: “They have been responsible for giving most of us Canadian singers our first and most regular opportunities to present song repertoire to the Canadian public.” (That includes four singers in POV’s current production of Falstaff).

Alas, 2012-13 was the Aldeburgh Connection’s last regular season of self-presented concerts, though the duo will still perform and teach under that moniker, in Toronto and elsewhere, when invited by others. (Butterfield initiated their visit to Victoria.)

Ralls and Ubukata brought their farewell Toronto season to an end, in April and May, with three all-Britten programs, and it was a fitting way to go out, not just because of the centenary: Britten was in large part the inspiration for the Aldeburgh Connection.

Aldeburgh is a seaside town in Britten’s native Suffolk, England. He and his longtime musical and domestic partner, tenor Peter Pears, settled there in 1937 and in 1948 co-founded a summer music festival that continues to this day. Ralls, who is English, worked there with Britten in the early 1970s — he was pianist for the original production and first recording of the opera Death in Venice — and later was an accompanist for Pears.

Ubukata first visited Aldeburgh in 1977, the year after Britten’s death, and since that summer he and Ralls have also been partners in both art and life. Ralls emigrated to Canada in 1978, but the two continued to perform, coach and teach at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies through the early 1990s. When they founded their own organization in Toronto, they sought to carry over “the traditions and the high standards of performance associated with Aldeburgh.” (Pears, who lived until 1986, was their founding patron.)

Though Ubukata is from Ontario, he has had a family connection to Victoria since the 1970s, and he and Ralls have been regular visitors over the years, especially at Christmas time, yet Saturday’s concert marks their first appearance here as the Aldeburgh Connection.

On Saturday’s program, a repeat of one of those season-ending programs in Toronto, the main works will be three of the five extraordinary Canticles that Britten composed between 1947 and 1974, profoundly expressive devotional works for solo voices with piano. Ralls and Ubukata will serve as narrators and accompanists, joining the same three singers that appeared in the Toronto concert: Butterfield, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and baritone Alexander Dobson, all of them familiar to Victoria audiences.

(Taylor and Butterfield also sang in the Aldeburgh Connection’s beautiful recording of Britten’s Canticles, released in 1996 on a Marquis Classics CD.)

Saturday’s program will also feature a handful of Britten’s settings of music by Purcell, who greatly influenced his own work (including the first Canticle), and a ballad sung by the men of UVic’s Chamber Singers, directed by Gary Froese.

As the concert is part of UVic’s Orion Series in Fine Arts, admission is free, though note that Phillip T. Young Recital Hall seats only 220.

The Aldeburgh Connection will also lead a free public masterclass today at 3:30 p.m. in UVic’s MacLaurin Building, room B037.

Note: This concert will also be streamed live online through UVic’s Listen! Live program at