Post image for San Francisco Music Preview: CELEBRATING BENJAMIN BRITTEN’S CENTENARY (SF Symphony)

by Tony Frankel on June 12, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony conclude the 2013-14 season with three weeks of concerts beginning today and running through June 29 that celebrate the centenary of English composer Benjamin Britten. These smartly compiled concerts explore Britten’s works for opera, vocal music, ballet, and orchestra, and span the prolific career of a composer, conductor and pianist who died in 1976 at the age of 63.

Gil Shaham_Photo by Luke Ratray

All four concerts from June 12-15 feature frequent SFS guest artist Gil Shaham performing Prokofiev’s beloved Violin Concerto No. 2, part of Shaham’s long-term exploration of “Violin Concertos of the 1930s,” recognized by Musical America as “one of the most imaginative programming concepts in years.” I saw him perform Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with the LA Phil last year, and Shaham proved why he is one of the foremost violinists of our time. On the same program is Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) composed for The Royal Ballet. The score is heavily influenced by Balinese gamelan music, which Britten first heard during his time in the United States (1939-42), and again on a two-week vacation in Bali in 1956. “Gamelan” refers to traditional musical ensembles of Java and Bali which are comprised predominantly of percussive instruments.

TABUH PAT JAGUL at Davies Symphony HallA programming coup allows you to experience first-hand the Balinese performing arts that influenced Britten’s work: On June 13 and 15, Gamelan Sekar Jaya opens with Tabuh Pat Jagul, a traditional classical instrumental piece from the lelambatan tradition, considered the true classical repertoire of Balinese gamelan music. The broad and stately architecture of lelambatan music, ranging in style from simple, older renditions to complex, modern kebyar-influenced arrangements, is considered an essential component of temple ceremonies. Gamelan Sekar Jaya is a sixty-member company of musicians and dancers, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in the performing arts of Bali. The company comprises five unique gamelan orchestras and a company of dancers. Each orchestra is com­posed of bronze metallophones and/or bamboo marimbas, usually combined with tuned gongs, drums and flutes.

Legong-pengeleb-at Davies-HallIn Indonesia, gamelan often accompanies dance, “wayang” puppet performances, or rituals and ceremonies. On June 12 and 14, the ensemble opens the program with more thrilling, interlocking melodies of the bronze “gamelan gong kebyar” when it presents a gamelan and dance work titled Legong Pengleb, a tribute to North Bali’s leadership and a masterpiece of the “kebyar” genre, featuring dynamic rhythms, precise and ornamented connections between music and dance, and constant melodic shifts. This piece, originally created in the early 20th century, was part of the musical renaissance that has now thrived for nearly a century in Bali.

The programs from June 19-21, again helmed by MTT, showcase Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, featuring tenor Toby Spence and SF Symphony Principal Horn Robert Ward. The Serenade is a setting of a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, exploring both its calm and its sinister aspects. It was written in 1943, not long after Britten returned to England ROBERT WARD on hornafter a three-year stay in the United States, where he picked up musical influences from his friend and contemporary Aaron Copland. In recognition of the influence that the American sound had on Britten during these years, the program also includes Copland’s Danzón Cubano. Music by another friend and colleague of Britten’s, Dmitri Shostakovich, is included in these concerts with his Symphony No. 15 in A major.

Robert Ward joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1980 as Associate Principal Horn and has held the position of Principal Horn since 2007. A founding member of the symphonic brass group The Bay Brass, Ward has also engaged in recordings outside the orchestra, working with such diverse performers as Paul McCandless, Lisa Vroman, and the heavy metal rock group Metallica. Aside from our own SF Opera, Toby Spence has sung with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, ENO, the Bavarian State Opera, the Teatro Real, Madrid, Theater an der Wien, and the Hamburg Opera.

Artists Rendering of PETER GRIMES at SF Symphony - Image Credit MACMOC DesignAs if the aforementioned programs aren’t exciting enough, MTT leads a semi-staged production of Britten’s most famous opera, Peter Grimes. These concerts from June 26-29 are the first SF Symphony performances of the complete work. Given the importance of many of his other operas such as Billy Budd, Peter Grimes is arguably Britten’s greatest opera, an arresting, jarring tale in which the orchestra is as much a character as any of the vocal roles. It’s also the first British opera to achieve repertory status since Purcell’s Dido. Utilizing the full SF Symphony and SFS Chorus, director and costume designer James Darrah and video designer Adam Larsen offer dramatic staging and a specially-designed video projected onto a panoramic floor-to-ceiling scrim that encompasses the stage. Darrah—who helmed the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels for the 10th Anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall—said that the stage has been extended over a few rows of center seats like a floating island to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers.

Stuart_Skelton_by_John_Wright_Playing the titular role, tenor Stuart Skelton returns to SFS to tell this thrilling tale of love, madness, and the mysterious deaths left in the wake of the seafaring outcast, leaving audiences wondering: is Grimes a villain, or a victim of cruel fate? Named Male Singer of the Year at the 2014 International Opera Awards, Skelton is critically acclaimed for his outstanding musicianship, tonal beauty, and intensely dramatic portrayals. Here he is singing Peter Grimes’ “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” from the Opera Australia production, for which he won the Sir Robert Helpmann Award for Best Male Performer in a Lead Role:

The all-star cast includes South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford, a role she performed at English National Opera. Ms. van den Heever received her musical training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She participated in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship, and is a featured soloist on the SF Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. The rest of the cast is listed below.

Rosner-Four-Sea-InterludesWhile the opera cast takes a day off on June 28, the indefatigable Maestro Thomas leads a special concert featuring Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (which was published separately as its own orchestral suite), as well as excerpts from The Prince of the Pagodas. Four Sea Interludes will be accompanied by a video interpretation of the work by artist Tal Rosner. On designing the visuals for this commission by New World Symphony, SFS, Philadelphia Orchestra and LA Phil, Rosner explains, “I decided to portray the piece only with footage of American places, from the four cities that commissioned the work. I was looking for a connecting theme among the four. They’re all Four Sea Interludes at the New World Symphonyhistorically different, built differently. Then I hit on the idea of the bridge. Each city is on or near a large body of water, and I was drawn to the idea of places that were not destinations in themselves but were transitional places. So, bridges and underpasses.” Rosner’s San Francisco focus was on the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. Rosner filmed the Bay Bridge from Treasure Island. From this unusual angle, the familiar structure turns into an abstraction, and as Rosner explains, “These structures themselves are pieces of art, as well as engineering.”



Thursday, June 12 at 2 pm
Friday, June 13 at 8 pm
Saturday, June 14 at 8 pm
Sunday, June 15 at 2 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
Legong Pengleb: Gamelan and dance work (June 12 & 14)
Tabuh Pat Jagul: Gamelan instrument work (June 13 & 15)
(Gamelan Sekar, Jaya gamelan ensemble)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63
(Gil Shaham, violin)
Britten: Suite from the Ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Opus 57

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, June 19 at 8 pm
Friday, June 20 at 8 pm
Saturday, June 21 at 8 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Copland: Danzón Cubano
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31
(Toby Spence, tenor and Robert Ward, horn)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A major, Opus 141

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, June 26 at 8 pm
Friday, June 27 at 8 pm
Sunday, June 29 at 2 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
BrittenPeter Grimes – A Multimedia Semi-Staged Event
James Darrah, stage director and costume designer
Cameron Mock, scenic and lighting designer
Adam Larsen, video designer
Sarah Schuessler, associate costume designer
Approx. 2h 40m, includes intermission
Stuart Skelton, tenor (Peter Grimes)
Elza van den Heever, soprano (Ellen Orford)
Alan Opie, baritone (Captain Balstrode)
Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano (Auntie)
Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano (Mrs. Sedley)
Nikki Einfeld, soprano (Niece 1)
Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano (Niece 2)
Richard Cox, tenor (Bob Boles)
Kim Begley, tenor (Horace Adams)
Eugene Brancoveanu, baritone (Ned Keene)
John Relyea, bass (Mr. Swallow)
Kevin Langan, bass (Hobson)
San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin director

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, June 28 at 8 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Tal Rosner, video artist
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a [with video]
Britten: Suite from the Ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Opus 57

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

photos courtesy of SF Symphony

all concerts take place at Davies Symphony Hall
for tickets, call 415-864-6000 or visit
“Inside Music” talks from the stage one hour prior to each concert

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