SF Symphony’s Britten festival a many-splendored event 

click to enlarge Stuart Skelton portrays the title character in the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of Benjamin Britten's opera “Peter Grimes." - COURTESY ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA
  • Stuart Skelton portrays the title character in the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of Benjamin Britten's opera “Peter Grimes."
At the tail end of worldwide centennial celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s birth (1913-1976), San Francisco Symphony, at last, is focusing on the works of the great composer, who was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music.

Britten’s greatness included vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces, some of which are included in the final three weeks of the orchestra’s 2013-14 season.

The first concerts this week, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, include Britten’s “The Prince of the Pagodas” ballet score, which has elements of Balinese gamelan (gong orchestra) music. East Bay Balinese ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya also appears.

Emiko Saraswati Susilo, director of the company (and daughter of founder Hardja Susilo), calls the troupe’s pieces both beautiful and joyful.

On Friday and Sunday, the program includes the melodic “Tabuh Pat Jagul,” which “is a reflection of the structure of the entire universe — the divine, the human and the natural world. The piece is usually played in the temples of Bali, accompanied by the priests’ bells, quiet mantras, the scent of flowers and incense,” Susilo says.

On Thursday and Saturday, the program features “Legong Pengleb.” “Just saying ‘Legong Pengleb’ makes my heart flutter,” she says. “Pengleb means ‘to be set free,’ it is a true masterpiece of the Balinese repertoire.

“The piece follows the journey of young women, beginning rather quietly and pensively,” she says. “Through their persistence, cleverness and loving approach with their families, they attain the freedom that they long for, finally set free. The dance ends with tremendous energy and playful joy.”

In the final week of June, the symphony presents three semi-staged performances of Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes,” a tragic story of an outsider’s conflict with a fishing village community.

The cast includes a bevy of acclaimed Merola Opera Program alumni, including tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role. He returns to The City with accolades from around the world to sing Britten’s antihero, which has become his signature part.

“It’s good to be back in San Francisco with a role that is so deeply and permanently under my skin,” Skelton says, “a role that has taken me to some truly wonderful places and afforded me the opportunity to work with some absolutely wonderful colleagues.”

He adds that, although the opera has many facets, what stands out “is that combination of ethereal vocal writing for Peter as a visionary-dreamer and the visceral torment of Peter the outsider, the combative, obstinate, granite-like form. The challenge is finding the ragged edge of each, both dynamically and histrionically.”

Skelton, who has worked with MTT while recording Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” together, is looking forward to joining him again. He calls San Francisco’s maestro a “musician’s musician” and “a man of the theater” who has “an innate understanding of and deep affection for ‘Grimes.’”

And despite spending years next door in the War Memorial Opera House, Skelton calls Davies Hall his musical home in San Francisco.

“It’s a special occasion to be here now with this absolute masterwork of 20th-century opera,” he says.

The middle program of the Britten series includes a concert with Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings,” featuring horn soloist Robert Ward. The final event includes Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes,” with video by Tal Rosner.


San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: Thursday through June 28

Tickets: $34 to $156

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

Britten programs

Thursday-Sunday: Gamelan Sekar Jaya; Gil Shaham, violin, 2 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday

June 19-21: Robert Ward, horn; Toby Spence, tenor, 8 p.m.

June 26-29: “Peter Grimes,” 8 p.m. June 26-27, 2 p.m. June 29

June 28: “Four Sea Interludes” and “Prince of the Pagodas” excerpts with video, 8 p.m.

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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