Stephen Key discovered the works of composer Benjamin Britten about 10 years ago when he and a group of colleagues in Oberlin, Ohio learned the interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes.” He says the music stayed with him.
“They’re very accessible … yet also diverse and challenging to the ear at the same time,” Key says. “He uses a lot of bitonality and interesting rhythms … there are two key centers going on — they just really spoke to me and then when I found out he wrote it for his partner, Peter Pears, that made me even happier that as a gay man, we actually do have some examples of long-term relationships in the early 20th century.”
There are a host of events going on in the region this fall to celebrate the centennial of Britten’s (1913-1976) birth. Friday night, Key will play several of Britten’s works for oboe at Shenandoah Conservatory (1460 University Dr., Winchester, Va.) in the Goodson Chapel Recital Hall at a free 7 p.m. concert. It’s about a 75-minute drive from D.C. Look up “Benjamin Britten: Works for Oboe” on Facebook for details.
Key, a 32-year-old Ada, Okla., native who also grew up in the D.C. area and returned here after a three-year stint in Texas in 2011, says Britten and Pears were “as out as they possibly could be” considering the time. He says Britten’s music holds up because it’s both “approachable and challenging.”
“Britten found that happy point in the middle where he was pushing the envelope of what was possible, but there’s still enough melody and harmonic structure there for you to latch onto,” he says.
Key lives in Fairfax but teaches two days a week at Shenandoah Conservatory. He also freelances with his instrument and hopes to secure more orchestral work.
He’s single and enjoys roller coasters, cooking, food and wine, video games, “pretentious/cerebral” movies, reading and travel in his free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I came out as a 14-year-old freshman in high school, so I’ve been out for 18 years. The hardest person to tell was a friend who was already OK with gay people, so I was really embarrassed that it took me so long to tell her.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Personally, my older brother, because he made it easier to accept who I am by coming out so brashly before I did. As to public figures, of course, Harvey Milk and the numbers of artists including Aaron Copeland, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber and (though closeted) Leonard Bernstein.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
I was a Velvet kid, so there will always be a special place in my heart for Nation.
Describe your dream wedding.
It would be a compromise between the desires of my future husband and myself.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about many issues because I am from the political left, coming from Oberlin. These include universal health care, a desire to see socialized post-secondary education, prison reform and re-addressing drug laws, particularly marijuana.
What historical outcome would you change?
I would be reticent to change anything because, as an artist, I recognize that sometimes the most beautiful things in the world are exhumed out of the most devastating things.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
I don’t pay attention to pop culture, but if I did, I would say it is electing President Obama for the first time.
On what do you insist?
Good food and company.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
It was about my upcoming Benjamin Britten recital.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“The Life of an Oboist, from Struggle to Acceptance”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Absolutely nothing, I’m happy the way I am. However, I would be interested to see how far we could go with genetics, epigenetics and genome therapy and how far that could go in helping to cure real problems.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
That’s hard for me to answer. I consider myself a struggling atheist. My default position is atheism, but many things in my life have caused me to question that.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Keep doing what you are doing. As a former activist who had to choose a career path, I admire the people who are doing the hard work that has generated so many positive results in the past decade. I look forward to seeing how much more will be done.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
A great career and a great marriage.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
That we are all polyamorous.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
I know that this may sound silly, but, “Beautiful Thing” was a movie that I watched when I first came out and it was very approachable for a young gay teen; it made me feel happy to be who I am. I will always have a special place in my heart for that movie.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Large weddings and Facebook baby posts.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Not a prize, but a job: principal oboe of one of the top orchestras in the United States.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That the path of the turtle is just as fulfilling, if not more so, than the path of the hare.
My family is here and I’ve spent most of my life here, so it feels like home. Also, there are a number of good career opportunities for musicians. Also, it’s just a good city!