Michael Tilson Thomas may have defied the calendar by producing a Benjamin Britten centennial festival a year late, but he has nevertheless brought his own inimitable élan to this celebration. A semi-staged concert performance of Peter Grimes will conclude the festival. But the conductor has launched the project by reviving one of the composer’s least performed orchestral works, the score for John Cranko’s full-length 1957 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, both conducting a 45-minute suite and, as is Tilson Thomas’s wont, putting it in context.
The conductor has made Britten part of the San Francisco Symphony diet since his formal opening night 20 years ago. The orchestra, which has learned to walk tightropes under this music director, triumphed again in this brilliantly rendered sequence edited by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke, which revels in dazzling colouristic effects and the wide rhythmic variety one expects in the great 19th-century ballet scores (this listener regrets the omission of the swaggering march and courtiers’ dance from Act One). Tilson Thomas compares the delights to opening a box of splendidly wrapped chocolates. You also find allusions to Stravinsky and popular American music theatre if you listen hard enough. The fanfares are pure MGM.
One might not guess that the score gave Britten much trouble during the composition; he never again returned to writing for the ballet. But his sojourn in Bali in 1956 generated a fascination with the metallophonic sonorities of the traditional gamelan ensemble, which aided Britten in creating the unique sound world for The Prince of the Pagodas, cunningly adapted for western instruments. What the composer heard in Asia we heard courtesy of Sekar Jaya, a commanding Bay Area gamelan ensemble, who opened the evening with a performance of Tabuh Pat Jaguit, a heavenly din and transcendent sound from the heart of the world.
In the middle, Gil Shaham delivered a rapturous performance of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. This artist has been visiting this orchestra for more than two decades, and he has always impressed as intensely musical. But this reading, in which Tilson Thomas collaborated nobly, puts Shaham in another category altogether. Considering Britten’s deep friendship with Shostakovich, he might have made a more suitable programme mate, but he’ll get his chance this week.
Until June 29, sfsymphony.org