Tilson Thomas Forges Creative Salute to Britten

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A scene from the San Francisco Symphony's semi-staged production of 'Peter Grimes.'  (Photos by Stefan Cohen)
A scene from the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of ‘Peter Grimes’ at Davies Symphony Hall.
(‘Peter Grimes’ photos by Stefan Cohen)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN FRANCISCO – It used to be that whenever there was a round-numbered milestone year for some composer or musician, the following year would see an immediate drop-off in programming, sometimes to nothing. The 2013 Benjamin Britten centenary, though, spilled over well into 2014 – most notably, perhaps tardily but certainly not superficially, in San Francisco as Michael Tilson Thomas put on an enterprising end-of-season Britten centennial celebration of his own.

Stuart Skelton as the tormented Peter Grimes in concert in San Francisco.
Stuart Skelton’s shambling Peter Grimes was unforgettable.

Rather than assemble an encyclopedic year-long survey of the familiar and the obscure from Britten’s vast catalogue – as James Conlon did downstate in Los Angeles – Tilson Thomas concentrated his energies mostly upon two big works, one familiar and the other obscure. Peter Grimes, of course, is a staple of international opera houses, one of the few operas written since the death of Puccini to take root. But hardly anyone knows The Prince of the Pagodas, Britten’s only evening-length ballet and a piece that displays a different — at times surprising —  side of the composer.

In the opera house, performances of Peter Grimes can’t help but focus tightly upon the opera’s complex title character. But this time, in a semi-staged concert performance in Davies Symphony Hall on June 26, the spotlight was clearly, emphatically, upon the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. Grimes lends itself particularly well to a concert performance, as the orchestra and chorus play prominent roles in “painting” the scenery and underlining the psychological forces at work. So this was a rare chance to hear a long-standing, world-class team of conductor and orchestra playing this magnificent, haunting score onstage instead of buried in the pit, with an equally fine chorus singing straight out into the hall.

In this SFSO 'Peter Grimes' under Tilson Thomas, chorus and orchestra were always prominent. (Stefan Cohen)
In this ‘Peter Grimes,’ chorus and orchestra were always prominent.

And play and sing magnificently they did. The score sounded glorious from the Davies stage, with the mellow and booming lower brasses giving the Sea Interludes a rich, dark coloration and just the right weight in the bass. Tilson Thomas approached the score with point and depth, not pulling the phrases as elastically as he might have been tempted to do. This performance’s special contribution was to heighten the score’s impact with some bright external ideas, using the hall’s Ruffati pipe organ in Act II’s church music to give it a depth charge I’ve never encountered before in an opera house or recordings, and to have a jaunty offstage band accompany a good deal of Act III’s scenes with the villagers, which made for a strikingly effective contrast with the onstage orchestra. Further on into Act III, the chorus could gang up on the loner Grimes with overwhelming weight, and with Tilson Thomas’ broad pacing, the finale generated a quiet power that lingered long after the final bar.

Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco 'Peter Grimes.'
Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco ‘Peter Grimes.’

Yet amid all of this firepower, tenor Stuart Skelton somehow managed to create a shambling, grimy, unforgettable title character who still commanded the stage. Skelton’s Grimes was clearly deranged from the get-go, displaying a flash of anger in the opening trial scene, fiddling absent-mindedly with a rope, bullying his boy apprentice – and still, Skelton found a way for Grimes to go even further down the road to insanity in Act III’s mad scene on a craggy, custom-made thrust stage. A lot more Jon Vickers than Peter Pears, I’d say. Alan Opie as Captain Balstrode sported a leathery baritone that lacked color but was actually appropriate to the role of an aged retired merchant skipper. Elza van den Heever’s Ellen Orford bloomed in the moments with the boy apprentice in Act II and throughout Act III.

James Darrah directed the limited action either in front of Tilson Thomas and the orchestra on a narrow semi-circular platform surrounding the orchestra or, in Act III, through the aisles of the hall. The “sets” consisted of projections of gray drawings evoking the bleak buildings, landscapes, and seascapes of the Suffolk coast on a screen whose central section was “torn out” to reveal the chorus. It’s possible the stage decor also helped to focus the sound; I’ve never heard better, more resonant acoustics for orchestral music in Davies than in these concerts.

Four cities commissioned videos to work in tandem with the 'Sea Interludes.' (Kristen Loken)
Four cities commissioned videos for pairing with the ‘Sea Interludes.’ (Kristen Loken)

More Grimes could be heard in another Britten concert on June 28, but this time Tilson Thomas played only the Four Sea Interludes as a soundtrack to a quartet of videos by Tal Rosner. Throwing away the premise of evoking the cold, wild North Sea, Rosner constructed video-animation sequences that involve scenes from each of the commissioning cities – Miami (“Dawn”), Philadelphia (“Sunday Morning”), San Francisco (“Moonlight”), and Los Angeles (“Storm”). L.A.’s image, as usual, gets hammered – it’s all bleak and traffic-choked with a paved-over river and a jumble of Hollywood nightscapes. The others are more attractively, if abstractly, depicted. Tilson Thomas chose noticeably slower tempos with which to accompany the videos, the SFSO sounded terrific, and Rosner’s visions were absorbing and provocative, although I wouldn’t want to associate them with Britten’s music more than once.

Then came The Prince of the Pagodas – not the whole two-hour ballet, just a 45-minute suite compiled by Britten experts Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke that hits most of the high points, including just about the entire sequence of startlingly lovely, clanging, gamelan-inspired music in the center of the ballet. Britten had gotten stuck midway through the ballet’s composition, but a 1956 trip to Bali lit his imagination, and he managed to incorporate Balinese techniques using only Western percussion instruments with piccolo, piano, and cello reinforcement. Beyond the exotic appeal of the gamelan sequence, the rest of Pagodas is a wonderfully inventive score, with plenty of variety, wit, some Stravinsky pastiches, and more strange sonorities of a Western brand.

This one-off work deserves a prominent place in the whole repertory, let alone Britten’s, but hasn’t received anything resembling its due; only one complete recording, by Oliver Knussen, has been made since Britten’s own, somewhat-cut version came out in 1957. Tilson Thomas has been a long-time fan of the ballet – he, Knussen, and André Previn reportedly had a secret Pagodas society going at one point – and he gave the suite a deeply-felt, rhythmically alive performance, with resplendent playing by the San Franciscans.

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A scene from 'Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach,' performed where Britten set the work.
A scene from ‘Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach,’ performed where the opera is set.

In wrapping up the Britten centenary, I’d also like to call attention to another, very different production of Peter Grimes that slipped into the DVD shelves this year after the centenary was officially over. Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach (Arthaus Musik) was staged literally on the beach of this small town on the Suffolk coastline last year in an attempt to capture the authentic atmosphere of Britten’s East Anglian roots. Indeed, this film does just that, not only in the performance – a very good one, despite the obstacles that Mother Nature inevitably presented in this wild outdoor setting – but also in the camerawork when the characters fall silent. In the first of the Sea Interludes, the water laps over the pebbles of the beach precisely as the music tells it to, and elsewhere there are wonderfully dark, moody seascapes, fields of reeds, and inlets. Rosner’s warm Miami sunrise seems downright perverse after viewing this.

The orchestral parts – led sharply, objectively, and lovingly by a trusted Britten collaborator, Steuart Bedford – were previously recorded inside the Maltings at Snape, but the singers were recorded live on the beach; somehow, the engineers were able to obtain a most listenable blend. The Grimes here, Alan Oke, in contrast to Skelton in San Francisco, leans toward the gentler Pears approach, more misunderstood visionary than brute. David Kempster’s Balstrode is the very image of a retired merchant skipper, and Giselle Allen is a matronly, compassionate Ellen.

The sets along the beach are a ramshackle of wrecked boats and promenades, designed to represent Grimes’ mental disorders. At almost all times, you can hear the waves of the North Sea underneath the music – or starkly, all by themselves in the pauses in between the shouts of “Peter Grimes!” by the vengeful burghers. For its unique atmosphere alone, this film of Peter Grimes is a must-see.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent forAmerican Record Guide.