Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka (Petrushka)
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
After my big Met season-opening performance of Aida with Anna Netrebko on Tuesday night, I was getting ready for my big Carnegie Hall season-opening performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, their long-time music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and their guest soloist violinist Leonidas Kavakos for an all-Stravinsky program on Thursday night.
Hearing Stravinsky’s music is always a thrill to me, and Le sacre du printemps has to be one of my all-time favorites from the entire classical music repertoire. That said, I was equally thrilled for a long-overdue other opportunity to hear his electrifying violin concerto again. I had the privilege of hearing it twice, performed both times by Gil Shaham, back in Washington, D.C. years ago, and haven’t been able to find it on any concert programs until last spring, when the Carnegie Hall’s 2018-1019 season catalog appeared in my mailbox and quickly made my day.
So it was with great expectations that I made my way to the bustling Stern Auditorium, where I found what seemed like a lot of the same staunchly patriotic Russian population that I had found myself among on Tuesday night. Those Russian know a good thing when they see it.
Among Igor Stravinsky’s many works, I can’t say that Pétrouchka stands out for me, maybe because I have never cared for puppets and their misadventures. On the other hand, I can still appreciate the score’s refreshing inventiveness, and when it is played by a well-oiled ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony, it is hard not to be carried away by the whole thing. And I eventually was.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, had grabbed me the first time I heard its recurring dissonant “passport” chord followed by a cascade of idiosyncratically spirited music. And that was only the first movement of a piece whose unexpected twists and turns kept me on my toes the entire time, and left me eager to repeat the experience as often as possible. That proved to be more difficult than I had thought.
But my patience was mightily rewarded when at long last the magic operated flawlessly again on Thursday night with Leonidas Kavakos, who spontaneously made the quirky little concerto his own with his trademark virtuosity. Among many other things, you simply had to love the Baroque hints and asymmetrical rhythms of the composition, and the right balance between warmth and causticity of the performance. Although I remembered the concerto’s pulsating playfulness most vividly, this time I was struck by the introspectiveness lyricism of its two slower Aria movements. The work only lasts slightly over 20 minutes, but it kept soloist and orchestra constantly busy going through Stravinsky’s seemingly bottomless bag of tricks for a totally exhilarating performance.
After a well-earned enthusiastic ovation, Kavakos came back and treated us to a gritty Adagietto from the Sonata for Solo Violin by Second Viennese School’s member Nikos Salkottas, adding an unmistakable Greek touch to our Russian neo-classical evening.
After intermission came the prodigious Sacre du printemps, which I can never hear enough either. Its riotous Paris premiere, which was probably caused as much by Diaghilev’s avant-garde choreography as by the revolutionary nature of the Stravinsky’s score, may have made it famous for the wrong reason, but there’s no doubt that its own artistic merit would have guaranteed it a prime spot in the classical music canon regardless. An unambiguous ode to the “mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring” and a discreet homage to Eastern European folk music overflowing with experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress and dissonance, it remains a unique work that still sounds as fresh and innovative today as it did back in 1913.
There’s probably not much, if anything, that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and MTT cannot handle, and sure enough, they gave a brilliant performance of it, deftly using their technically advanced skills to compellingly evoke primal rituals with mysteriously foreboding percussion, brightly ringing brass, strongly confident winds, and of course, the organically sinuous and a little unnerving bassoon. For all its wild ferocity and sonic eeriness, this Sacre also featured superbly polished harmonies in the quieter moments, proving once and for all that far from being mutually exclusive, primitiveness and refinement can make beautiful music together.