Monday, March 08, 2010
Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings at NCCO
The New Century Chamber Orchestra, under their energetic new music director, the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, gave a wonderful concert called "Serenades and Dances" that toured to four different spots around the Bay Area last week. Lisa Hirsch published an alert on Friday at the "Iron Tongue of Midnight" that the performance of Benjamin Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings" was "stunningly great" so I snagged a pair of press tickets for the Saturday evening performance at Herbst Theatre. Happily, Lisa was right.
The first half of the concert was highlighted by that beautiful perennial staple of classical radio stations, Dvorak's 1875 "Serenade for Strings," which sounded less bland and pasteurized than usual because you could actually hear the various parts working with and against each other in the 20-member chamber orchestra.
Of all the composers with whom I've shared the planet on a contemporary basis, Benjamin Britten is definitely my favorite. (He died in 1976 at the age of 63.) Britten was one of those freaks of nature who were born musically gifted on the order of a Mozart. He grew up in middle-class England, became a pacifist in his youth while hanging out with best friends novelist Christopher Isherwood and poet W.H. Auden, and eventually coupled up romantically with a tenor who nobody though would amount to much named Peter Pears (pronounced "peers"). Britten and Pears ended up forming a creative partnership which has probably never been equaled in musical history, and fortunately for all of us the two of them recorded everything upon which they collaborated. There's a major role for Pears in all of Britten's great operas, from "Peter Grimes" to old Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" thirty years later. The two even collaborated on the reduction of Shakespeare for the opera "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is a wonder.
In 1939, friends and roommates but not yet lovers, the two got on a boat for North America with World War Two looming in Europe, and they spent the next three years roaming America. The two fell in love and "consummated" the relationship in Grand Rapids, Michigan of all places (click here for a funny post on the subject with photo by the concert pianist Stephen Hough). However, they became homesick and heartsick, and returned to England in 1942, a homosexual pacifist couple in the middle of WWII.
They not only survived but thrived, and Britten wrote a pastoral song cycle to six English poems that focus on hunting horns, twilight, and death, with William Blake's "Elegy" to a dying rose as the sinister centerpiece. It's one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written, and reminds me of a quote from a letter Britten wrote to a friend after listening to "Das Lied von Erde" by Mahler. "It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness & of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment & never-satisfied love."
There are still too few performances of Britten's music, though it is aging brilliantly and more people with each decade are realizing how great a musician the world was given. For instance, I've never heard the "Serenade" before live, and the performance on Saturday night was overwhelming, with me dissolved into a teary mess about thirty seconds into the solo horn prologue. The local Kevin Rivard (above), who plays in the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras was the soloist, and he gave one of the greatest, most sensitive renditions imaginable. There were even a few glitches in all the perfection which paradoxically made the performance even better. The tenor Brian Thorsett wasn't in quite the same league, but he crooned beautifully in the high regions and worked together beautifully with Rivard in what is essentially a duet for horn and tenor. The third voice, the strings, were astonishing, and the sum of the parts created serious magic.
As an apertif, the orchestra played a few Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok, who is another 20th century composer whose music is sounding better with each passing year. There was a funny moment after the Maruntel movement when the audience couldn't contain themselves and started applauding between movements, though tentatively, and Nadja turned around and said, "It's okay. The piece is over," so the audience roared happily.