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[whitespace] Princely Gestures

The San Francisco Symphony revived a version of Benjamin Britten's rarely heard 'Prince of the Pagodas'

By Scott MacClelland

FOR ALL THE SPLENDID CRAFT, resourcefulness and atmosphere Benjamin Britten poured into his music, no score of his comes close to the exotic colors and effects found in The Prince of the Pagodas. Since it is so rarely played, it is safe to say that most of the Flint Center audience last Thursday (May 17) had never heard it before.

Thanks, then, to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for parading Donald Mitchell's 1997 concert suite adapted from the original ballet of 1956. Ballet? Except for the dances from his opera Gloriana, Britten is hardly known as a ballet composer (which may explain why the piece sounds so little like his other music).

In his program notes, Michael Steinberg makes it clear that Britten was a fan of Tchaikovsky's ballet music, and something of the Russian's vivid flights of fantasy infuse the Britten score. Plainly, John Cranko's choreographic scenario peeks through as dance rhythms suddenly appear amid passages of serious thought, and occasional themes sound like parodies and even clichés. While the score holds up on its own, it doesn't hang together like a symphony. Its movements create moods and spells that open up for plainly self-conscious dance moments (in the manner of Tchaikovsky).

One finds more riches in the complete 100-minute score left out of the 35-minute concert suite. (Britten himself conducted the complete work for Decca, last reissued on vinyl in the 1960s, now an out-of-print collector's item). But this new edition, by Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke, distills the essence, while favoring the Pagoda land of the second act, where the big surprise is the sudden appearance of gamelan music.

With the exception of an arcane drum, Britten creates the effect with conventional orchestral instruments, albeit with an emphasis on percussion. (The precedent was the Canada-born Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan, which reflects the composer's impressions of Javanese and Balinese gamelans. Britten accompanied McPhee in recording some gamelan-inspired piano music.) When Britten combines a soaring violin with Western trumpet fanfares and his gamelan music, one finds oneself witness to a delicious East/West musical schizophrenia.

What keeps The Prince of the Pagodas so riveting from beginning to end is Britten's amazing resourcefulness. He makes the listener stay focused for fear of missing the next surprise. Nice work when you can find it. If you weren't there, try to imagine the combination of cor anglais with high harmonics on the solo cello, or the first violin section playing at the top end of the G string (the lowest one) with mutes on their bridges.

Steinberg sums it up with a description of the choreography that applies equally well to the music: "There ensues a game of hiding, chasing, and assuming and shedding of disguises."

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G got two different performances at this concert. Provençale pianist Helene Grimaud played it French while Tilson Thomas played it American. It came down to light and heavy. She served up that distinctly transparent French touch (that pervades French music, including opera), while he added a weight to the sonority that made the piece sound like Gershwin.

Of course, Ravel wrote his piece under the influence of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F, even though French jazz in general and Ravel in particular are known for a delicate touch. As a result, some of Grimaud's filigree was blotted out by the Barbary Coasters.

But Grimaud is no retiring violet. Her interpretation was well-conceived and conveyed with as much purpose as art. In the circumstance, her solo work, not least the Mozartian second movement, was radiant.

The self-taught Toru Takemitsu paid one of the primary influences on his music a major compliment in Star-Isle, the short work that began the program. From the opening chorale on the brass, and on page after page of the 1982 opus, Olivier Messiaen was a haunting presence. The chorale itself sounds like a tribute to the French composer's early L'Ascension, as do the subsequent passages for opulent strings. A large battery of percussion--conventional in the Western symphony orchestra--added a rainbow of exotic colorations and outbursts.

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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