The often-heard put-down of Britain as “the land without music,” mostly voiced by smug Germans of earlier times, is a bit unfair. Britain had a minisurge of major composers during the 15th and 16th centuries, Dunstable and Dowland among them. Had Purcell not died at 36, he might have changed the face of music history. By the late 19th century performing institutions in Britain were prospering, and significant composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams had emerged.
Still, where are the Britons among the ranks of the immortals?
The situation changed completely by the mid-20th century, as Britain became a major force in every sphere of music. “The British Renaissance: British Music Since World War II” is the theme of the Juilliard School’s Focus! 2013, a weeklong series of free concerts. The festival opened Friday night with Joel Sachs conducting the New Juilliard Ensemble, the school’s top-notch contemporary-music group, at Alice Tully Hall. The program offered accomplished and captivating performances of five works written between 1985 and 2011, impressive pieces that made a case for Britain today as a hotbed of musical innovation and achievement.
The festival will pay homage to Britten, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. But the main focus will be on composers who came of age after 1945, especially many exciting living ones.
The program began with a work by Jonathan Harvey, who died in December at 73 — the first performance outside Europe of Mr. Harvey’s mystical “Sringara Chaconne.” As Mr. Harvey wrote of the piece, Sringara is an Indian rasa, a flavor or mood “signifying a love essence.” The Baroque chaconne used a recurring element, often a ground bass, as a hook for variations. The recurring figure in Mr. Harvey’s chaconne is a series of four delicate chords, hazy and elusive sonorities with shimmering sustained tones, oscillating inner voices and rippling figures on the piano. The chords recur in countless guises and transformations to produce a meditative piece with passages of restless activity.
It was fascinating for me to hear this modest and miraculous score after having attended the British premiere of Mr. Harvey’s “Weltethos,” an 85-minute oratorio, last summer, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Harvey increasingly seems the Messiaen of British music.
Alexander Goehr’s piece “… a musical offering (J. S. B. 1985)” is a homage written in 1985 for the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth. Here Mr. Goehr, who came to attention as a major player in the British avant-garde of the 1960s, quotes plainchant and derives motifs from the notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name as the basis for an elegant 20-minute piece, which in its central section evokes several genres of Baroque dance.
The rising composer Helen Grime, born in Scotland in 1981, was represented by her Clarinet Concerto, composed in 2009, a compact and engagingly mercurial work, which alternates passages of lacy, searching lyrical writing with stretches of jumpy animation. The clarinetist Bryan Conger brought commanding technique, myriad colorings and flair to the inventive solo part. John Woolrich’s “Envoi” (“Taking Flight”) is a pensive and ethereal memorial piece for a friend, scored for solo viola (here the excellent Meredith Treaster) and an ensemble of six players.
The program ended with “No Man’s Land,” a compelling 25-minute work for two male singers and large ensemble by Colin Matthews, written in 2011 in memory of the English conductor Richard Hickox. The text, by Christopher Reid, is a series of poems depicting the skeletal ghosts of two soldiers hanging, as if crucified, on barbed wire fences in no man’s land. Though the music viscerally depicts the bleakness of the imagery through grating instrumental writing and piercing harmonies, Mr. Matthews deftly folds in elements of music-hall tunes and ditties, accompanied by an ensemble including a tinny upright piano.
The outstanding vocal soloists — the tenor Kyle Bielfield and the baritone John Brancy — brought youthful, attractive voices, dramatic intensity and crisp diction to their performances. This was a strong start to what should be a revelatory festival.
The Focus! 2013 festival continues with nightly concerts through Thursday at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall, 60 Lincoln Center Plaza, and a final program on Friday with the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; (212) 769-7406, juilliard.edu.