Arts & Culture » Music

Taking Stravinsky on the road

by Philip Campbell

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a Stravinsky Festival concert. Photo: Cory Weaver
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a Stravinsky Festival concert. Photo: Cory Weaver  

Practice, practice, practice is how you get to Carnegie Hall, and the last program in the San Francisco Symphony's recent two-week Stravinsky Festival proved it once more. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas quickly took the well-drilled show on the road for a repeat performance in Manhattan's most famous venue and a side-trip to Nassau County.

MTT and the Orchestra opened Carnegie Hall's season on Wednesday with a light-hearted gala featuring gal pals Renee Fleming and Audra McDonald. The second night in the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage reprises Stravinsky's "Petrushka" and "Le Sacre du Printemps," composed for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with the witty Violin Concerto in D featuring soloist Leonidas Kavakos included. On Oct. 5 everyone moves to Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville, NY, Long Island's premier concert hall, for the last of the Stravinsky concerts.

The recent "final dress" performances at Davies Symphony Hall won standing ovations for the SFS and Kavakos, but the Festival rightfully belonged to MTT. His youthful association with Stravinsky has informed his mature understanding of the scores, and after performing many of them many times for many years, he has earned expert status.

The first half of the second concert in the "Rebellious Beauty" Festival emphasized the genius of the composer's orchestrations with the vivid colors of "Petrushka" and the diamond brilliance of the Violin Concerto. The riot-causing side of the rebel composer appeared after intermission with the ferociously intense "The Rite of Spring." Stravinsky's groundbreaking ballets for Diaghilev were intended as the Festival's thematic link. It was curious hearing MTT pace them more as tone poems than actual works for dancing. As pure aural entertainment it was magnificent.

"Petrushka" was a tour de force for the orchestra, even if no one could imagine choreography slow-paced enough for MTT's grind-to-a-halt in the Third Tableau, "The Moor's Room." It was only a moment of slackness in an otherwise spirited account. The public scenes were wonderfully detailed and exciting.

Greek violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos has the right sound and technique for the Violin Concerto in D, which has influences from the Baroque era and an elegant neoclassical structure. The composer didn't like descriptive terms, but they fit. Kavakos has said, "We see the Stravinsky who is looking ahead of his time, but he's distilling all the energy and the power from the past." The performance was dazzling, and Kavakos and MTT managed to give the lovely Aria II a lyrical flow. Notoriously dry-eyed Stravinsky would have given grudging approval.

The biggest draw was obviously "The Rite of Spring," and the capacity crowd returned from intermission to attentively absorb the stunning sonorities of the eternally revolutionary work. It never ceases to amaze that a score written over a century ago can still sound innovative and raw.

The musicians covered themselves in glory, and they should wow them on the other coast, too. MTT looked radiant, joining his crew in the glow of the applause while pointing out many exceptional soloists. The excited audience was still raving all the way out to Grove and Van Ness, onto Market Street and beyond. Igor can still stimulate some lively discussion in the 21st century.

The SFS returns for October concerts in Davies Hall with guest conductors Manfred Honeck, Pablo Heras-Casado, and Cristian Macelaru on the podium. One might think MTT would be taking a rest during hiatus, but he maintains a busy schedule, concertizing with other orchestras throughout the month.

Oct. 11-13: Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, leads performances of Dvorak's warmly melodious Symphony No. 8 and Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante in E minor, with virtuoso Norwegian cellist Truls Mork in his SFS debut.

Oct. 18-20: Young Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado makes a welcome return to DSH with a fanciful bill of Spanish-themed music written by French composers, which includes Ravel's famous "Bolero" and sensuous "Alborada del gracioso," and Debussy's "Iberia" from "Images pour orchestra." Spanish pianist Javier Perianes performs Bartok's final completed work, the folk-inflected Piano Concerto No. 3.

Oct. 25-27: Cristian Macelaru makes his SFS debut in concerts highlighted by Anna Clyne's "Masquerade," inspired by mid-18th-century promenade concerts held in London's pleasure gardens, and the world premiere of SFS co-commissioned "Silent Night Elegy" by Kevin Puts, an arrangement for orchestra of music from his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera "Silent Night."

Fast-rising star violinist Ray Chen (with a big local fan base and dynamic presence on YouTube) performs Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole." Richard Strauss' Viennese whipped cream (schlagobers) Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" rounds off the richly varied program.


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