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MTT and San Francisco Symphony present Midcentury Masters

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas
Stefan Cohen

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present the second in their season of concerts celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten. The program features Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings - featuring tenor Toby Spence and SF Symphony Principal Horn, Robert Ward - and works by two of Britten’s friends and colleagues, Aaron Copland - his Danzón Cubano - and Dmitri Shostakovich - the Symphony No 15.

Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in 1943, for his lifelong companion, tenor Peter Pears, and horn player, Dennis Brain, following a request by Brain for a concert piece. It’s a song cycle set to a selection of six works by British poets, inspired by the night, and dedicated to music critic Edward Sackville-West who helped Britten with the selection of poems.

Now a central work in the tenor and horn repertoire, Britten’s Serenade was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in London on October 15, 1943, by Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, with Walter Goehr and his orchestra.

British tenor Toby Spence performs with some of the world’s major opera companies and orchestras, and with some of today’s greatest conductors. He has also, with his brother Magnus, launched a recital series in Wardsbrook, East Sussex, the concerts taking place in a converted Tudor barn in the heart of the Sussex Downs, not far from Glyndebourne.

Robert Ward was an undergraduate at Oberlin when he first heard Britten’s Serenade, having found the original 78 rpm that the composer had made with Peter Pears and Dennis Brain. "Not only is Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings one of the great pieces that the horn gets to play,” he says, “it's also one of the great pieces of 20th century music."

Aaron Copland, as American as his compositions are, was fascinated by Latin America. He loved the city of Havana, no doubt drawing on his experiences there for inspiration for his Danzón Cubano. "I did not attempt to reproduce an authentic Cuban sound,” Copland wrote, “but felt free to add my own touches of displaced accents and unexpected silent beats." (Source: Vivian Perlis -

Composed during the fall of 1942, this work was initially written for two pianos, for a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the League of Composers, at New York’s Town Hall - with Copland and Leonard Bernstein at the keyboards. The original version has since been overtaken in popularity by Copland’s orchestral version which will be heard in this concert.

Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No 15 - his last - in little over a month, during the summer of 1971. A feature of work is the composer’s use of ‘musical quotations’ which come not only from previous works of his own - his Symphony No 11, for example - but from the works of other composers as well. Quotes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture appear in the first movement, and in the final movement Shostakovich alludes to phrases from Wagner’s Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. Nobody seems to know why these were included in the symphony - not even Shostakovich himself. In a letter to his friend, Isaak Glikman, he wrote: "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them." (Source: Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman - Cornell University Press 2001).

The Symphony No 15 was first performed in Moscow on January 8, 1972 by the USSR Radio Symphony in the concert hall of the Moscow Conservatory, conducted by Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present Midcentury Masters - Copland, Britten and Shostakovich - at Davies Symphony Hall from June 19 to 21. More information on the program and tickets can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

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