Posted on Sat, Oct. 16, 2004

'Symphony's' strength is in its voice


The fall season has been good for fans of Benjamin Britten's music. Last month, the San Francisco Opera presented a superb new production of the composer's opera, "Billy Budd"; this week at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony offered its first performances of Britten's "Spring Symphony."

Written only a few years apart (the "Spring Symphony" in 1948 and 1949, "Billy Budd" in 1950-51), the works give the listener two very different glimpses into Britten's music, from the tragic injustice depicted in the opera to the joyous celebratory sound of the symphony. Yet both are shining examples of this composer's love for the human voice and flair for distinctive orchestrations.

The "Spring Symphony" is a massive work for orchestra, large choral forces and three vocal soloists, and Thursday afternoon at Davies Hall, it became the luminous centerpiece of a dynamic program led by guest conductor Robert Spano. Also on the program were Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, with Emanuel Ax as soloist, and "Three Screaming Popes" by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The performance repeats 8 p.m. Saturday.

Composed on a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the "Spring Symphony" is Britten's paean to regeneration and rebirth.

It is a symphony in name only; although it is divided into four parts, it is closer in structure to a song cycle than a traditional symphony. It is also quintessentially English; the composer originally considered using medieval Latin texts, but settled on English lyric verse poems, mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries (the notable 20th-century exception is W.H. Auden's "Out on the lawn I lie in bed" from "A Summer Night.")

Part I begins in deep winter with a solemn prayer; the orchestra alternates with unaccompanied chorus, but they come together in settings of texts by Edmund Spenser, George Peele, Thomas Nash and John Clare. The highlight of this part is "The Driving Boy," a lively song featuring boys' chorus and soprano singing over choral whistling. The movement concludes with a radiant setting of John Milton's "The Morning Star."

Part II is a slow movement featuring Auden's text sung by an alto soloist; Part III, a scherzo, incorporates texts by Peele and William Blake in a suite of dance songs. Britten marshals all of his forces in Part IV, a blazing finale signaling the advent of spring.

Spano led an elegantly shaped, drivingly rhythmic performance. The excellent vocal soloists -- soprano Mary Dunleavy, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer and tenor John Mark Ainsley -- made articulate contributions. But the massed voices of the combined chorus -- featuring Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus, the S.F. Girls Chorus, and the Pacific Boychoir -- were the stars of the show.

Under Spano's direction, the rest of the program was just as appealing. Ax is always an outstanding soloist, but he and Spano made an unbeatable team in the Mozart. The pianist approached the concerto, including Mozart's own cadenzas, with freshness and fluency, and the conductor elicited wonderfully buoyant playing from the orchestra.

Turnage's "Three Screaming Popes," which also received its first S.F. Symphony performances on this program, was a thrilling curtain-raiser. Like Britten, the English composer is best-known for his operas ("Greek," "The Silver Tassie"), but this single-movement work demonstrates his brilliance as a composer of orchestral music. "Popes" was inspired by a series of paintings by Francis Bacon, which was in turn based on Diego Velazquez's famous 1650 portrait, "Pope Innocent X," and it manages to sound both modern and medieval at various points in its 15-minute running time. It's a bright-toned, boldly percussive work of tremendous verve and intensity, and Spano led an edgy, well-defined reading.

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