SF Symphony Stages Multidisciplinary Benjamin Britten Fest

by Jean Schiffman

Digital Technology broadens the musical experience of concert-goers.

In this age of multidisciplinary performance and digital art, the San Francisco Symphony, under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, stands at the forefront. In fact, video installations form an important element in two of this month’s SFS offerings: a “semi-staged” version of the Benjamin Britten opera “Peter Grimes,” and a one-off concert of “Four Sea Interludes, Opus 33,” a section of “Peter Grimes” that is often presented separately as an orchestral suite. It’s all part of a varied Benjamin Britten Festival, conducted by MTT, to celebrate the late British composer’s 100th birthday.

When reached by phone in New York, where he lives, cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen was in the midst of designing an encompassing video scenario for “Peter Grimes,” to be projected on a huge, wraparound, two-layer scrim. The video accompanies the 92-musician orchestra, 112-member symphony chorus and 13-member cast throughout the performance. Similarly but on a smaller scale for the brief “Four Sea Interludes,” video artist/filmmaker Tal Rosner has created a set of projections to enhance the four sections of the suite and to link them thematically. Both designers are nationally and internationally acclaimed.

MTT is deeply committed to using digital technology for scenic enhancement, say his collaborators. “He’s so forward thinking, such a pioneer in the digital realm,” exults Rosner.

Still, there are caveats when large moving images are added to a presentation that centers on live human beings on a stage. Larsen, Rosner and “Peter Grimes” director James Darrah (a prominent theater and opera director) all agree that videos must never drive the story. The human eye gravitates more toward electronic images than to the relatively tiny humans onstage, and that is the challenge in creating electronic images: they must not draw too much focus away from the performers. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Britten’s “Peter Grimes” was first performed in London in 1945; the composer was inspired by a narrative poem written by 18th-century Suffolk poet George Crabbe. It tells a tragic tale of a fisherman (played here by acclaimed tenor Stuart Skelton) on the wild and lonely coast whose apprentice dies. Although Grimes is cleared of any involvement in the death, the villagers believe he killed the boy, and when his new apprentice also dies, Grimes’ fate is sealed.

Director Darrah, based in Los Angeles, prefers not to use the term semi-staged—all productions, he notes, must adapt to whatever constraints exist. In this case, in Davies Hall, the audience will see not only the video and the singers but also the orchestra, the conductor and the chorus. For this production, the stage has been extended over a few rows of center seats, like a floating island, says Darrah, to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers. “The set,” he explains, “is basically a very large, panoramic projection screen that starts at floor level and wraps around the orchestra in a semi-circle. It goes up into the air and breaks open where the chorus is, and then continues up like a big curved sail.” He expects the video to evoke the ambiance of an old-world fishing village battered by the ocean for so long that it has lost all traces of color—a “cold, steely-gray-blue, whitewashed world… the sea so dark it’s black.”

To design the “Peter Grimes” video, Larsen started out by listening intently to the music, then conferring with collaborators Darrah, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock and of course MTT. He has been gathering photos and drawings and then overlaying and re-sketching them, testing out what shapes and textures work well on the giant screen. “Water will definitely be in the piece, “ he says. “Motifs reappear when a particular character is present; images may change to magnify or represent the character….The design will be based on etchings, drawings, high contrast…based on mood and tone and light, not a picturesque seaside village.

“I’m a fan of abstraction, not of the literal,” he elaborates. “There will be abstract textures reminiscent of nets, wooden beams—angles and lines which are reminiscent of wooden boats.” Pictures of harbors are not used to recreate a harbor scene per se but rather as artistic inspiration for shape and tone. He aims for subtlety: “If you don’t show your audience everything, it gives them more room to become immersed in the piece.”

“It’s installation art related to a piece of music,” clarifies Darrah, “not a big square screen with photo-realistic images.” This “Peter Grimes,” he says, will have a bit of a period feel to it—not a strictly traditional “Peter Grimes” but a “Peter Grimes” that illuminates certain dark elements of the ambiguous central character and that also illuminates the minor characters. It will feel familiar to some viewers and revelatory to others.

How the video affects the performers is another matter. Sometimes it’s helpful to tell the singers what’s going on behind them, says Darrah. Sometimes they can even see the video, and, he says, “When it’s done right, it’s magical, it doesn’t look like a projection on a screen, it looks like a living, breathing scene, and they can use that to their advantage.”

Does the current craze for multidisciplinary work threaten sensory overload? “We as human beings are becoming more and more accustomed to consuming more than one channel at the same time,” avers Israeli-born Tal Rosner, on the phone from his home in London. “To look at a screen and listen to music is not necessarily too much to ask for.”

Rosner’s video design for “Interludes” (the suite is divided into Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm) was commissioned by four American orchestras—in Philadelphia and Miami, where it has already been presented, and in Los Angeles after San Francisco. Accordingly, Rosner assigned an “interlude” to each city; San Francisco’s is the moonlight interlude.

To create the video, projected onto three screens, he listened repeatedly to the music, seeking musical patterns that he could translate into visual patterns and using a “wild mix” of source material, combining filmed footage, still images and graphics.

For all four interludes, he focused on bridges and overpasses over water. So for the San Francisco “Moonlight” interlude, he shot the Bay Bridge and the sunset from Treasure Island. “It gave me an eerie feeling that connected me with what I wanted to portray,” he says. “Bridges are interludes themselves, connections between two points…just as the interludes connect different parts of ‘Peter Grimes.’”

Rosner himself is in the tech booth throughout the suite, helping to adjust the somewhat adaptable film to the live music.

“It’s too easy for projection to overwhelm a show,” muses Larsen. Sometimes, he admits, you need your collaborators to tell you that it’s not all about the moving images: “You get over yourself really quick that way!” A projection design, concludes Darrah, can be grand—or it can be virtually invisible. Sometimes, he says, the audience barely notices that there are projections—instead, they talk about how beautiful the piece was. And that’s as it should be.

“Peter Grimes,” June 26, 27, 29.

“Four Sea Interludes” (also excerpts from “Prince of the Pagodas”), June 28.

Davies Symphony Hall

Grove St. at Van Ness Ave.,