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Joyous 'Spring' in the air at S.F. Symphony

- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, October 16, 2004

For an acknowledged master of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten is taking an awfully long time to occupy his rightful place in the repertoire. More than a quarter century after his death, major orchestras and opera houses are still slowly assimilating his music into their schedules.

The San Francisco Symphony takes a major step forward on that front with this week's performances of the "Spring Symphony," Britten's joyous, panoramic evocation of the season (not this season, but let it pass). Thursday's matinee performance, led by guest conductor Robert Spano, offered a wealth of poetic imagery clothed in a riot of vocal and instrumental color.

The title is tricky but not inaccurate. Written in 1948-49, the "Spring Symphony" is actually a choral song cycle, its 12 movements grouped into four parts that mirror the traditional symphonic ground plan.

The expansive introductory section takes us from winter -- a string of dense, chilly choral harmonies -- into the first eruption of spring, with its birdcalls, amorous ploughboys and garlands of flowers.

A moodier section, corresponding to the symphonic slow movement, brings rain and a hint of politics into the picture, followed by a scherzo that is all love and high spirits. The magnificent finale takes a wide-angle lens to its subject, encompassing town and country, high-born and low, before turning the season again with the famous 13th-century round "Sumer is icumen in."

Britten chose his poetic texts with characteristic care, drawing mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, with a single foray into the 20th for the work of his friend W.H. Auden.

But more striking than the range of poetry is the array of instrumental textures he created -- from movements accompanied only by three trumpets, or whispery violins, or woodwinds and percussion, to the full orchestral panoply. The cow horn that sends its blatty call echoing through the last movement is only the most vivid touch among many.

Spano, who has not conducted here since his 1997 debut, presided over the performance with easy mastery, keeping his forces aligned but allowing the music -- especially in the rollicking dance-like rhythms of the finale -- to chart its own course.

The Symphony Chorus sounded vibrant and clear-toned, and the sections for children's chorus -- singing and whistling alike -- were sweetly dispatched by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Pacific Boychoir.

The three vocal soloists also brought luster to their assignment. Soprano Mary Dunleavy -- making her Symphony debut fresh from a brief supernova burst of activity at the San Francisco Opera -- and tenor John Mark Ainsley both declaimed their parts with tender clarity, but the most striking was mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, reaching deep for the mournful rumblings of "Welcome, Maids of Honour" and bringing lyrical fluency to the Auden setting "Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed."

The first half of the program was more hit-or-miss. Spano led off with "Three Screaming Popes" (1989), British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's high- strung response to artist Francis Bacon's treatments of paintings by Velázquez.

The surface rhetoric in this 15-minute score is compelling, with its urgent shrieks and lushly rhapsodic interludes, and there's no questioning the virtuosity of the orchestration. But the driving point behind it all remains obscure to me.

In between the two English composers came Mozart, an innocuous and slightly mushy account of the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-Flat, K. 595. Emanuel Ax brought unforced elegance to the solo part, but he and Spano couldn't seem to agree on tempos, and there was an awkwardly languorous feel to the outer movements.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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