Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Britten Centennial Celebration at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony continued its Britten Celebration with a performance of the composer's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and the British tenor Toby Spence and San Francisco horn player Robert Ward as soloists.

Most people loved the performance, but I found myself carping throughout. Spence's voice was beautiful but his diction was incomprehensible. Tilson Thomas led the strings on Saturday evening at an unvarying funeral procession pace, and Ward was too recessive for one of the more showy and poetic pieces ever written for his instrument. The real problem was that I heard an exciting and moving account of the Serenade four years ago, played by the New Century Chamber Orchestra with SF Opera Orchestra horn player Kevin Rivard and local tenor Brian Thorsett as soloists (click here for an account). I was crying throughout most of that performance and was steadfastly dry-eyed on Sunday.

Things picked up considerably when the full orchestra performed Shostakovich's 1971 Symphony No. 15, the last he ever wrote. It is one of the most profoundly eccentric compositions he ever created, meandering all over the place while quoting himself, Rossini (the Lone Ranger/William Tell theme) and Wagner. There were odd solos for just about every instrument in the huge ensemble, including Michael Grebanier on cello above, and the performance was completely absorbing. It seemed odd to program it during what is supposed to be a Britten festival, but at least the two composers knew each other and above all respected the others' music, which was the ultimate compliment because they were both musical geniuses and snobbishly dismissive of most of their other contemporaries.

The festival finishes up in grand fashion this week with three performances of Britten's stirring, breakthrough opera of 1945, Peter Grimes, starring tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Elza van den Heever who looks and sounds born to play Ellen Orford. The chorus is really the main character in this opera about a bleak English fishing village, and it should be thrilling to hear the Symphony Chorus have a crack at the music. The performances are on Thursday, Friday and Sunday afternoon, and there are $50 tickets available in the orchestra section (click here to check it out). There is also a special concert on Saturday evening involving the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, if you happen to hate operatic singing, that will be accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner. This is paired with a repeat of Britten's The Prince of The Pagoda Suite which was sensationally exciting music when the Symphony played it two weeks ago. Click here for tickets.

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