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The SFS Britten Centennial Celebration begins with a ballet rarity

Georg Ehrlich's bronze bust of Benjamin Britten at London's Festival Hall
Georg Ehrlich's bronze bust of Benjamin Britten at London's Festival Hall
by Michael Ambjorn, from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

This afternoon the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), presented the first program in their Britten Centennial Celebration series of concerts. The “main attraction,” which filled the second half of the program, was a suite taken from the music that Benjamin Britten composed for John Cranko’s three-act ballet The Prince of the Pagoda (Opus 57, composed in 1956). The suite was compiled by Britten scholar and editor Donald Mitchell, working with Mervyn Cooke, and consisted of the following sections:

  • The opening Prelude
  • The four variations of the Kings of the North, East, West, and South from Act One
  • The first scene from Act Two: The strange journey of Belle Rose to the Pagoda Land
  • The second scene from Act Two: The arrival and adventures of Belle Rose in the Kingdom of the Pagodas
  • The second scene from Act Three: The Pagoda Palace, concluding with
  • The Finale and apotheosis

Michael Steinberg’s notes for the program book fitted all of these excerpts into the overall plot of the ballet but also noted that “we need not be too concerned with the details of John Cranko’s scenario.”

Indeed, what matters most about the suite is the journey it takes through a prodigious variety of instrumental sonorities, many of which will resonate with those familiar with Britten’s style, others with those familiar with how “story ballets” are structured in terms of “action steps” and character-developing “variations.” Finally, because of the very nature of the subject matter suggested by the title, there is a healthy dose of exotic sonorities not usually encountered in either Britten or the ballet repertoire.

The most prominent of those exotic gestures involve Oriental “flavors” associated the Kingdom of the Pagodas. Those flavors owe much to the influence of Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who lived in Bali for two years (and wrote the book A House in Bali about his experiences). When Britten met McPhee in 1939, he had become recognized as the leading Western authority on Indonesian music. Britten was probably also aware of McPhee’s “Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra,” which he had composed in 1936 and which was last performed in Davies by the SFS Youth Orchestra in May of 2007. Britten himself subsequently had first-hand experience of Balinese music when he visited that Indonesian island in January of 1956.

Taken as a whole, the suite provided abundant opportunities for just about every SFS instrument, often in some strikingly unconventional combinations, along with the evocation of Balinese sonorities coming from a generous percussion section. However, in spite of Britten’s personal experiences, it would probably be more accurate to say that he evoked McPhee’s impressions of those sonorities, rather than the sonorities themselves. This was particularly evident since MTT invited Gamelan Sekar Jaya to perform the music for a Balinese dance entitled “Legong Pengeleb.” (The performance included a corps of five dancers, who, for the most part, all executed the same movements.) Britten clearly seems to have preferred McPhee’s Westernized refinements to “the real thing.” The result was a major effort to exploit the full resources of an orchestra in which “authentic Britten” trumped “authentic Bali” without absolutely no ill effects.

The other orchestral work on the program was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 violin concerto in G minor (his second) with Gil Shaham as soloist. This had a few exotic gestures of its own, particularly when the rondo theme of the final movement is accompanied by castanets without the slightest trace of Spanish influence. All three movements introduce lyrical themes that are subsequently embellished with devilishly difficult virtuoso passages. Shaham glided seamlessly between stating the themes with a richly expressive rhetoric and then sailing through the embellishments. This was a performance that makes you wish that the adjective “awesome” had not been so hideously devalued, since the attentive listener could only sit there in awe of Shaham’s performance skills. MTT then provided another rich orchestral setting, totally different in character from Britten’s sonorities, making this one of the most stimulating concerto performances of the season.

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