Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Prince of The Pagodas

In the winter of 1955-56, the composer Benjamin Britten (above right) had anemia and needed a holiday after an historically prolific writing schedule over the previous decade. Accompanied by his tenor partner Peter Pears (above left) and the German Prince of Hesse and his English wife (above center), the quartet set off across Europe where Britten and Pears gave two-man recitals of his music, and then continued on to India, Singapore and Java. It was Bali however that "knocked him sideways," especially its musical culture, according to a letter in the 1992 Humphrey Carpenter biography of the composer. In another letter to his assistant Imogen Holst (daughter of composer Gustav Holst and a fascinating character in her own right), Britten wrote:
"The music is fantastically rich--melodically, rhythmically, texture (such orchestration!) & above all formally. It is a remarkable culture. We are lucky in being taken around everywhere by an intelligent Dutch musicologist--so we go to rehearsals, find out about & visit cremations, trance dances, shadow plays--a bewildering richness. At last I'm beginning to catch on to the technique, but it's about as complicated as Schoenberg."

Before the trip began, the British choreographer John Cranko was commissioned by Covent Garden to create a full-length, three-act ballet and he asked Britten's advice about possible composers. According to Carpenter, "Cranko was astonished and delighted to find that Britten was keen to undertake it himself." The project turned out to be much more work than Britten anticipated, and in a letter to a friend he wrote, "I've never written so many notes in my life--all those bits of thistledown dancing on the stage actually need a tremendous amount of music."

In the meantime, the visit to Bali and the Asian fairy-tale scenario devised by Cranko blossomed into one of my all-time favorite Britten scores, written with one eye on Tchaikovsky as a model and a gamelan orchestra on the other. There's really nothing quite like it, except in a few scores by Lou Harrison who was also entranced by Balinese music. The British composer and musicologist Colin Matthews has been quoted as saying, "for me The Prince of the Pagodas is the best Britten opera. It's such uninhibited music--something which of course isn't possible when you have to worry about voices."

Britten missed a number of deadlines before completing the final score, and conducted the first three performances himself in 1957. The ballet was a success, playing for 23 performances, a tour of America, and a production at La Scala. And then the ballet virtually disappeared outside of England for the next 60 years, which is bizarre and shameful since it may be the greatest 20th century ballet score written by anyone other than Stravinsky or Prokofiev. There is a great recording from 1957 of a slightly abridged version of the ballet conducted by Britten himself, and there is a long orchestral suite created by Deryck Cooke that was played by the San Francisco Symphony last week as part of their Britten festival this month. The concert on Sunday afternoon started with a performance of a gamelan orchestra piece by the East Bay troupe Gamelan Sekar Jaya above. It was lovely but made me wish we were wearing sarongs in impossible heat surrounded by pungent scents drinking a cold beer rather than sitting in Davies Hall. In other words, it didn't work as Western concert music.

The original program paired Britten with Shostakovich and his First Violin Concerto, but the soloist canceled and Gil Shaham above came in to the rescue and they changed the program to Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. It's a cusp composition from 1935 for Prokofiev, just as he was ready to leave the decadent West for a return to Mother Russia, as he puts his modernist, sarcastic brilliance aside for the most part and attempts simple lyricism instead.

Shaham is an elfin figure who likes to move and interact with everyone onstage while playing his violin which is enormously fun to watch. The first movement is a virtual sonata for violin and chamber string section, and he was in concertmaster Barantschik's face (above) during most of that time. They both seemed to enjoy it immensely. The second movement is impossibly sweet and beautiful, and the third movement reminds you that Prokofiev was the king of demonic, dynamic rhythms.

As enjoyable as all this was, I wish the San Francisco Symphony had really been ambitious and performed the entire ballet score, or at least the 90 minute abridged version on Britten's recording. The suite sounds completely disjointed, and Michael Tilson Thomas' conducting was rather manic, with the loud and propulsive sections amped up to the max and the soft, lyrical moments stretched out and losing their rhythmic pulse altogether. This would have also been a good occasion to play with multimedia because the audience was completely lost as to what was going on during the 50-minute suite in what is supposed to be a narrative ballet, and some visuals would have helped immensely.

None of that really matters, though, because the performance of the various sections of the orchestra were superb and exciting, particularly the huge percussion ensemble above who gave the most virtuosic display of a Western orchestra going gamelan that has ever been heard.

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