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MTT and SFS to conclude subscription season with three weeks of Britten

1958 photograph of Benjamin Britten at work in his studio
1958 photograph of Benjamin Britten at work in his studio
by Kurt Hutton, image courtesy of www.britten100.org

Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913. While the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave a stunning performance, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, of his Opus 66 War Requiem only a few days after his 100th birthday, “follow-up” programs have, thus far, been limited to his Opus 4 “Simple Symphony” with Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik leading the string section this past January. All this will soon change, however, when Britten’s music will become a major focal point for the final three weeks of the 2013–14 season in a series of concerts in Davies Symphony Hall, all of which will be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT).

This broader view of Britten’s accomplishments will begin with one of his most exotic efforts. The first week of this series will feature a performance of excerpts from his Opus 57, the score he composed in 1956 for John Cranko’s three-act ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. With the exception of “Plymouth Town,” a one-act ballet score composed in 1931 that was never staged until last year, The Prince of the Pagodas is Britten’s only ballet score. The exoticism of the music comes from Britten’s interest in Balinese gamelan music, which had been introduced to him by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee.

(Strictly speaking, there is a bit of lexical confusion here. The noun “pagoda” is generally applied to Buddhist structures in East Asia that can be entered. The characteristically solid sacred structures in Bali, like those in the rest of Indonesia, are usually called “stupas.” Claude Debussy made the same lexical error in the title of the first of his 1903 Estampes for solo piano.)

For the SFS program he has prepared, MTT has decided to provide the audience with an introduction to Balinese music and dance in the spirit of the introduction that McPhee provided to Britten. The ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya will make a guest appearance to provide the audience with an introduction to both the dance and instrumental styles of Balinese performance. Also, by way of contrast, the program will include a guest appearance by violinist Gil Shaham, who will serve as soloist in Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 violin concerto (the second) in G minor.

This program will be given four performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 12 and Sunday June 15, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 13, and Saturday, June 14. Gamelan Sekar Jaya will present examples of Balinese dance on Thursday and Saturday and will offer instrumental performances on Friday and Sunday. The Inside Music talk will be given by Peter Grunberg one hour prior to each performance, free to all ticket holders. In addition a free podcast about Britten’s score, hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, will be available for download from the Podcast page. Ticket prices range from $15 to $156. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFS Web site. They are also being sold at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, which may also be reached by calling 415-864-6000.

The second week will feature one of Britten’s most important vocal compositions for a concert setting. This is his Opus 31 serenade, scored for string ensemble and solo parts composed with specific individuals in mind, the tenor Peter Pears and the French horn player Dennis Brain. (The manuscript score, which I was fortunate enough to see in a display case at the British Museum, has the initials of these two performers in the left margin, where one expects to see instruments specified.) The composition provides settings of six English poems (one anonymous), framed by a horn fanfare that boldly explores a few of the natural upper harmonics that cannot be adequately matched on a piano keyboard. The program will also recognize two of the close friendships Britten made during his life. It will open with Aaron Copland’s “Danzón Cubano” and conclude with the final symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, his Opus 141 in A major.

This program will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m., on Thursday, June 19, Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 12. The Inside Music talk will be given by Scott Foglesong one hour prior to each performance, free to all ticket holders. In addition a free podcast about the Shostakovich symphony, hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, will be available for download from the Podcast page. Ticket prices again range from $15 to $156. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFS Web site. They are also being sold at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, which may also be reached by calling 415-864-6000.

The final week will focus on Britten’s best-known opera, his Opus 33 Peter Grimes. Stage Director James Darrah has prepared a staging suitable for the facilities in Davies, which will involve a full cast of soloists, featuring tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role, and the participation of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director). This enhanced concert production will be given three performances. There will also be a single concert performance of the four instrumental “sea interlude” excerpts (“Dawn,” “Sunday morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm”) from the opera. These will be supplemented with a new video created by Tal Rosner, first presented with MTT conducting the New World Symphony last October. This concert performance will also include excerpts from The Prince of the Pagodas.

The complete opera will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, and Friday, June 27, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 29. The Inside Music talk will again be given by Peter Grunberg one hour prior to each performance, free to all ticket holders. Ticket prices range from $34 to $152. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFS Web site. The concert performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 28. The Inside Music talk will be given by Laura Stanfield Prichard; and prices for tickets, available through a separate event page, will range from $41 to $156. All tickets are also being sold at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, which may also be reached by calling 415-864-6000. Finally, KDFC’s Rik Malone, has prepared a free podcast about Peter Grimes, which will be available for download from the Podcast page.