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.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Mike--thanks. There's a nice book, "The February House," about the amazing Brooklyn Heights ménage that included Britten and Pears along with Auden, Chester Kallman, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul and Jane Bowles (though I think Britten and Pears had gone back to England before the Bowleses moved in.)

Civic Center said...

Dear rootlesscosmo: Thanks for the kind words. The W.H. Auden Brooklyn Heights household sounds from all accounts like it was a bit of a fabulous bohemian nightmare, and the rather prim and proper Britten/Pears duo were appalled and didn't stay long. They ended up spending most of their time in the New York area out in Amityville, Long Island with an old European Jewish couple, the Mayers, who basically adopted them. Their relationship is a really nice story.

Nancy Ewart said...

I am learning how to listen to Britten by reading your reviews but I have a long ways to go. I don't know if you saw this but Philip Lagridge, who was known for his roles by Britten, just died.

"Tenor Philip Langridge, 70, "[He] was renowned for roles by Benjamin Britten and was an eloquent interpreter of Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Janacek and Stravinsky" as well as Harrison Birtwistle, who wrote three roles for him. Langridge's final performance was just after New Year's, as the Witch in Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera. "New York Times 03/08/10

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, this is great.

Ced said...

Cute post. I wished I had not been traveling last week, there are so few opportunities to hear those. I was thinking that the ensemble parallele should do a rape of Lucretia, or the turn of the screw.

momo said...

Dear SF Mike: I'll be in SF for a week, Sun-Sat, to visit family. Maybe we can connect while I'm in town. email JoannaOC dot gmail dot com.

amenaneri said...

What a great post--I have played the horn part in this to my brother's tenor in the past (10-15 years ago), also the Canticle for Tenor Horn and piano--a late work. I wish I'd noticed this was happening, or I would have been there for sure.

I adore this piece, and really loved the little link to Stephen Hough's blog with the extraordinary excerpt from Peter Pears' letter to Britten--an enticing glimpse into a charming love affair (although slightly embarassing, like something you shouldn't really have overheard). It makes me love Britten and Pears even more.