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MTT successfully juxtaposes Britten, Shostakovich, and Copland at Davies

1939 photograph of Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, and Peter Pears in upstate New York
1939 photograph of Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, and Peter Pears in upstate New York
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This is the second week of the Britten Centennial Celebration series of programs by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), in Davies Symphony Hall. Last night saw the first of three performances of a program that could have been given the title Britten and Friends. At the core of the program was a composition that Britten wrote for two of his closest friends, the tenor Peter Pears (who was also his life partner) and one of the best remembered masters of the horn repertoire, Dennis Brain. This was Britten’s Opus 31 serenade, a setting of six English poems with extended solo work for the horn in the accompanying texture of a string ensemble. The remainder of the program accounted for Britten’s friendships with two of the other major composers of the twentieth century, the American Aaron Copland and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich.

Britten may well have chosen to call Opus 31 a serenade in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Nachtmusik sense of the word. The six poems he selected cover a span of settings from sunset to evening to night and, ultimately, to the deepest sleep of death itself (even if not in this specific order). Britten selected six poets (one anonymous), each with a distinctly different “writing voice;” and the serenade, as a whole, is distinguished by shifts in “character type” assumed by both tenor and horn as the score progresses across those six songs. The entire cycle is then framed by a quiet fanfare played on a natural horn, adventurously exploring intervallic relationships among a few of the upper harmonics that have no place in the equal-tempered chromatic scale. The “Epilogue” statement of this fanfare is played off stage, allowing the sense of the entire composition to fade into the darkness of the metaphorical night it has evoked.

The tenor for last night’s performance was Toby Spence, singing with a thorough understanding of each of the six poems Britten had set. This involved a minimal amount of staging, particularly when he overtly delivered Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Blow, bugle, blow” text to Robert Ward (SFS Principal Horn, standing beside Spence for this performance), rather than facing the audience. Ward’s own solo work was truly stunning, capturing each “character shift” expertly and always with a secure sense of pitch, dynamics, intonation, and sonority. If there would be any quibble, it would be that Spence’s effectively understated delivery could have fared better with fewer strings; but, for the most part, MTT kept the dynamics effectively under control.

The intermission was followed by Shostakovich’s final symphony, Opus 141 in A major, completed in 1971. While Shostakovich would live until August 9, 1975, he had been contending with a variety of debilitating conditions since 1958. His previous symphony, Opus 135, was actually an orchestral song cycle for soprano and bass, which he dedicated to Britten. The structure was probably inspired by Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (the song of the earth); and Shostakovich’s selection of eleven texts all about death may have reflected Mahler’s own superstitions about death. Many thus see Opus 141 as a more optimistic composition.

The symphony definitely has evidence of humor. The opening Allegretto recalls the fun Shostakovich could have with a circus-like rhetoric; and the persistent repetition of the call-to-arms (better known as “Lone Ranger”) theme from the overture Gioachino Rossini composed for his Guillaume Tell (William Tell) opera always draws a chuckle or two from the audience. (For Shostakovich the real joke came at the end of the movement, when the clarinets steal that theme from the trumpets.)

Nevertheless, the symphony as a whole has many of the same nocturnal qualities that Britten had evoked in his Opus 31. Indeed, the final movement opens with one of Brünnhilde’s motifs from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, often called the “Annunciation of Death” theme, since she has come to tell Siegmund that he will die in the next day’s battle. Thus, like Opus 31, this symphony is one of many different moods; and, through some excellent choices of tempo and dynamic levels, MTT captured the distinctive qualities of each of those moods as they unfold through the four movements of the symphony.

Copland’s music began the program with a much lighter offering, his “Danzón Cubano,” which he composed in 1942. This would have been while Britten was living in the United States. It is thus possible that Britten may have heard it when it was first performed in a two-piano version on December 9, 1942, when Copland played one piano and Leonard Bernstein the other. The orchestration performed last night, on the other hand, was not completed until 1946, quite some time after Britten had returned to England.

The music is free of the usual sorts of “Latin” idioms we expect from the rumbas and congas of Cuban nightlife before the Revolution. The danzón is a more stately form. Every now and then Copland allows that stately façade to drop, revealing some of the raunchier rhythms; but, since the music is basically a rondo, the formality always recovers. This music contrasted sharply with what would follow: a blazingly cheerful tropical sun before it is ready to set. However, MTT gave it a spirited account, after which those of us on audience side could settle into the deeper expressiveness of both Britten and Shostakovich.