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A full program of instrumental Britten concludes the SFS centennial celebration

Tal Rosner's video projected above the members of the San Francisco Symphony
Tal Rosner's video projected above the members of the San Francisco Symphony
by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

The focus of the final program in the Britten Centennial Celebration series of concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall, conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), consisted entirely of Benjamin Britten’s instrumental music. There were only two selections, both of which were taken from scores written for stage performances. The second half of the program consisted entirely of a reprise of the suite that Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke arranged of music from Britten’s Opus 57, the score he composed for John Cranko’s three-act ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. The intermission was preceded by four instrumental excerpts from the Opus 33 three-act opera Peter Grimes, which Britten called “Sea Interludes.”

Considering that The Prince of the Pagodas was not particularly well received when it was first performed in 1956 and has been given only sporadic attention since then, the Mitchell-Cooke suite held up delightfully well on a second listening only two weeks after it was the major work in the opening concert of the Centennial Celebration. Somewhat like “The Rite of Spring” this is ballet music that can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the ballet itself. Britten (like Igor Stravinsky) was so inventive in making use of a large orchestra with a generously-sized percussion section that one can become so totally absorbed in the delightful assembly of themes, off-beat rhythms, and mind-bendingly prodigious blends of instrumental sonorities that one hardly misses the narrative behind it (which is, admittedly, overladen with dramatic details).

Indeed, even the authentic Balinese gamelan music, which MTT arranged to have performed to prepare audiences at the earlier concerts for Britten’s references to that particular style in the Kingdom of the Pagodas, no longer seemed necessary. All that really mattered was the spatially panoramic presentation of the full spectrum of Britten’s sonorities, all executed expertly, enthusiastically, and even joyously by the SFS musicians under MTT’s baton. Bringing this suite out for one last hurrah before the SFS season closes shop reinforced the proposition that this was expertly crafted music that needed to be rescued from the shadows to which it has been confined for so long.

The music for the first half of the program has never had to face such neglect. As I mentioned earlier this week, Peter Grimes was Britten’s first major success; so it was no surprise that there would be a demand for its music in the concert hall when it was not available on the opera stage. Britten composed six instrumental interludes to establish transitions from one setting to another. This was not merely music to provide time for the stage crew to change the set and rearrange the props. Each interlude furthered the narrative flow, reflecting on what had just happened as preparation for what was about to happen.

The most crucial of these interludes separates the two scenes of the second act. Ellen Orford is sitting outdoors with Grimes’ new apprentice while most of the people of the borough are in church for the Sunday service. Grimes comes to fetch the apprentice because he has sited a large shoal of fish. Ellen pleads that the boy needs his rest. Grimes ignores her (and the Fourth Commandment) and snatches the boy, singing, “God have mercy on me.” That six-note motif becomes the basis for a passacaglia in which the orchestra follows Grimes and the boy to Grimes’ hut, where they will prepare the boat for sailing and fishing. Note that the roots of “passacaglia” are Spanish, “pasar” (to walk) and “calle” (street). The interlude is literally following Grimes and his apprentice in their footsteps along the path to the hut.

Four of the remaining five interludes constitute the “Sea Interludes” that Britten extracted for concert performance. (The passacaglia is also sometimes performed in concert.) He gave each a descriptive title:

  1. Dawn
  2. Sunday Morning (complete with the bells calling worshippers to their church)
  3. Moonlight
  4. Storm

Each of these interludes provides its own approach to depicting larger forces of nature that reduce the everyday affairs of men and women to an almost petty level. That sense of the insignificance of the all-too-human when framed on a cosmic scale may have been a key motive behind George Crabbe’s decision to write The Borough (the literary source behind Britten’s opera). However, it never emerges in Montagu Slater’s libretto, perhaps because both Slater and Britten agreed that it could be better expressed through music.

Last night’s musical interpretation of this music was as powerful as it had been when it had been performed earlier this week in the context of the entire opera. However, while the concert performance could have reinforced the impact of the music by making it the primary focus of attention, instead both the music and the performance were undermined. They were relegated to the support of a projected video by Tal Rosner, created on a joint commission for SFS, the New World Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Rosner chose to ignore any references to Britten’s opera, choosing instead to dwell on such matters as modern architectural shapes and the activities of modern seaports, all set as “instances of the concrete” against an abstract background. That background was based on the decision to divide the screen into large squares. In appearance this was a bit like a monstrous chess board. However, my guess is that these squares were conceived as “mega-pixels,” initially filled entirely with a single color but, through the transition from abstract to concrete, gradually filled in with square-sized full-motion videos. Now there is nothing wrong with deciding to interpret a piece of music in a way that the composer had never considered; but Rosner’s ideas were so mind-numbingly simplistic (particularly when the motion video came across as a pale imitation of Koyaanisqatsi) that they amounted to little more than a nattering distraction from what Britten had intended his music to say. Perhaps the best that could be said of the visuals was that the audience was quieter than usual during the softest passages of Britten’s score.

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