In Correspondence from San Francisco

Les Illuminations by Benjamin Britten and The Planets by Gustav Holst

(performed in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California, October 27, 2023. San Francisco Symphony, Elim Chan, conductor; Andrew Staples, tenor.)

Greatness makes itself known, even to the least experienced music lover. The San Francisco Symphony, under the powerful, yet nuanced leadership of Elim Chan, proved itself a match for magnificent works by two of Britain’s great composers, Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst.

Andrew Staples, Tenor

Chan, a petite force of nature in a ruched black satin jacket over a bell-shaped tulle shirt wearing stylish boots, came ready for action. Without a conductor’s baton or a wasted gesture, she used her entire upper body to lead SFO. From fully expansive arm movements in fortissimo passages to the merest trembling of her fingertips in pianissimo passages, Chan redefines conducting techniques. But clearly, the orchestra had read her entire dictionary. A swipe to the right and the trombones heralded their power; a wave to the left and the magical concoction of harps and glockenspiel wove its spell. Chan took two very different works and gifted them to the audience adroitly wrapped in skill, elegance, and authority.

Les Illuminations, for high voice and strings, represents Britten’s ongoing pilgrimage toward effective text setting, succeeding in a song cycle of French poems by Arthur Rimbaud, who served as a foundational influence on literary surrealism. SFO presented a gorgeous variety of sonorities in both the strings and guest tenor, Andrew Staples. After a few too many heldentenor moments in the opening songs, Staples found his voice, so to speak, and delivered power and subtlety, as required.

The strings, equal partners in this venture, ebbed and flowed with their own power and subtlety. One of the loveliest moments came in the third movement. “Phrases” with the text “I have hung ropes from bell-tower to bell-tower; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star” is sung in near monotone staying soft until a glissando down to the final nearly silent words “and I dance.”

“Antique,” an homage to the god Pan, has the strings strumming quasi chitarra [like a guitar], with spacious vocal melismas on “night” in the final phrase “…tinkling sounds run through thy arms…Walk at night, gently moving this thigh, the other, the left leg.” As an example of the partnership between the strings and voice, the principal violin ends the movement with a celestially high solo.

“Royauté” and “Marine,” were more down to earth with a delightful scene of village royalty celebrating young love followed by playful staccato that alternates with thrilling runs and whirling notes where “whirlpools of light” swirl down to a jaunty pizzicato. The entire piece ends with gently discordant harmonies expertly dying away into resignation at the departure of . . . unstated rumors and visions, ending this tour de force with the ultimate in virtuosic restraint.


Elim Chan standing against a black background
Elim Chan, Conductor

Holst intended The Planets to represent astrological influences, excluding Earth as having no significance in this realm. So many sci-fi movies use the first movement—Mars, Bringer of War—that the audience understandably exploded as it ended. Daring to begin an eight-movement piece with such unrelenting energy, Holst met his own challenge, moving immediately to the ethereal delicacy of Venus—Bringer of Peace. While the trombone section and two timpanists led the way in Mars, Venus featured glistening blends of gorgeous tones in the strings and woodwinds.

From the serenity of Venus came Mercury—the Winged Messenger—a delightful scherzo, an interlude before the drama of Jupiter—Bringer of Jollity. As the second most well-known movement, Jupiter had the largest orchestration, keeping faith with The Planets‘ subtitle: “for large orchestra.” The huge forces featured 30 violins and eight basses, four each of flutes, oboes, and bassoons (for comparison, most Beethoven symphonies have no more than two of each), and seven percussionists. Jovial Jupiter moves from commanding force embellished with the cymbals and triangle to poignant fervor. Concerning this latter, the lovely melody in the style of a hymn has now become a hymn tune called “Thaxted” in use for Anglican services and is also set to secular lyrics.

Once again, the players’ tone qualities equaled the composer’s imaginative orchestration, like the mysterious drones in the basses paired with two harps for Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. The same applies to Neptune—the Mystic—the final movement with the lovely tone of the entire flute section paired with the aforementioned harps, glockenspiel, and suspended cymbals. A hidden choir of sopranos and altos illuminated the unearthly sensuality of this orchestration giving the audience a real-time sense of timeless wonder.

Between Saturn and Neptune, Uranus—the Magician— begins dramatically, featuring the seven-member percussion section. Xylophone, two timpanists, bass drum, cymbals, and more, the active section made their own magic with the myriad tools at their disposal. The enthusiastic audience recognized this section with vigorous applause, as they did for the cellos, who had their own acknowledgment, separate from the rest of the string section.

Once Holst wrote to Ralph Vaughn Williams, another great British composer: “You have really done it…you have reached the heights but you have taken your audience with you.” With Holst himself as the main pathway toward thrilling performances, Chan and the San Francisco Symphony did indeed reach the heights, taking each member of the audience with them.

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