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June 22, 2010

Centennial of Peter Pears a welcome reminder of English tenor's contribution to vocal art

In a year that has already had some notable anniversaries -- the bicentennials of Chopin and Schumann, for example -- I had to take notice of one more, this one on June 22. It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter Pears, the elegant and eloquent English tenor who died in 1986.

He never had -- he couldn't have had -- the fame of a Pavarotti. His voice lacked the vibrant warmth or clarion ping that typically excite the general public, and his repertoire did not include the big operas that help tenors win popularity. But those of us who fell under the spell of Pears felt mightily rewarded just the same.

He was such a sublime communicator, especially when singing the music written expressly for him by his longtime partner, Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th century's greatest composers. Pears was an essential component in most of Britten's operas, creating the title roles in "Peter Grimes" and "Albert Herring," not to mention Captain Vere in "Billy Budd" and Aschenbach in "Death in Venice," among others. The tenor's voice left its mark as well on the Britten's "War Requiem" and so much more.

The combination of his distinctive timbre, superb articulation and incisive phrasing put Pears in a rare class. Today's singers -- not just tenors -- could learn a lot from his example. Here's a taste of the Pears artistry, captured in a bit of Schubert and a folk song arranged by Britten, who's the accompanist in both videos. And, since I don't think Pears would have minded too much, I appended a little comic relief from Dudley Moore, who nails Pears and Britten in a single burst of parodistic brilliance:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:08 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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