Thursday October 4 2018 - On the second night of Carnegie's season (the gala on Wednesday being the first), the San Francisco Symphony offered an all-Stravinsky program to a near sold-out audience. They were led by their music director and 2018 Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Tilson Thomas will be leaving the San Francisco Symphony after 25 years at the end of next season, so it was great opportunity to see him live before his departure.
The first of the Stravinsky classics on the program was the revised version of Pétrouchka. During the opening fanfare in Tableau 1, Mr. Tilson Thomas managed to create an atmosphere with the strings that almost sounded like minimalism with tightly coordinated interruptions by other instruments. Textually it was quite different than other performances I've heard: easy to distinguish ever instrument, yet a burly sound.
The bass clarinetist Jerome Simas seemed to get the humor and fun, providing characterful counterpoint the other woodwinds and brass. The three bassoons and the contrabassoon really dug into their parts during the famous magician entrance creating wonderful mysterious atmosphere. Principal flutist Tim Day added a bit of sharp snappiness to the magician, almost a restlessness to the lyrical melody. Individual moments like these with such great musicians made the performance fun and fabulous to listen to, the woodwinds and brass in particular were truly fabulous throughout. Another one of these moments was the waltz in Tableau 3 when principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson, principal flutist Tim Day, and Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye had a lovely trio fully of character and charm.
The clarity and energy in dense sections such the dance of the nannies in Tableau 4 was exceptional. When the woodwinds appear repeating the opening theme that is originally played in strings, Mr. Thomas made the them sound supple, lush, and sparkly. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik made the solo virtuoso violin that appears right after have a snappy rhythm. While Mr. Tilson Thomas energized the orchestra and layered the sound in interesting ways, some of the slower passages felt disjointed - at least it felt that without the dancers. From a coloristic standpoint though, this was one of the most fun interpretations I've heard of this piece.
The next piece on the program was the ever-popular Stravinsky Violin Concerto featuring soloist Leonidas Kavakos. This concerto is also being performed all week at the New York Philharmonic with Leila Josefowicz playing, so I look forward to the rare occasion being able to see vastly different performers play the same piece in one week (you can read Oberon’s review here). The concerto is an interesting piece that uses an unusual chord to open all four movements and launch them into vastly different moods. The violinist acts both as a soloist and as a chamber musician. Mr. Kavakos and the orchestra seemed to work well together in this capacity, playing down the virtuosity of the concerto. It was a clean and understated reading that worked best in the mysterious Aria II. Here, Mr. Kavakos’s clean and romantic playing worked well to capture the mood. This reviewer felt that his playing was too understated and clean for this particular concerto (Mr. Kavakos seemed to eschew some of the rougher sounding timbres in the piece) – but ultimately had a satisfying different take. The orchestra felt similarly understated, but it was a nice reprieve in-between two big Stravinsky ballets. As an encore, Mr. Kavakos gave an electrifying account of the second movement of the underplayed Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas’ Violin Sonata. Here, he seemed to use the full spectrum of violin coloring and also managed to highlight all of the difficult counterpoint embedded in the music. Really a stunning performance and I hope he records the entire piece (right now there only a handful of recordings).
Rounding out the concert was a colorful performance of The Rite of Spring. After a hearty opening from Mr. Paulson’s bassoon, Mr. Tilson Thomas managed to coax utter transparency from the growing sound. While the Augurs of Spring were vigorously played, every instrument was easily audible as more sound was layered on – it was an impressive balance between clarity and intensity. Unfortunately a woman who was in the last box of the First Tier on the audience’s righthand side seemed to be dancing in her seat in a way that was incredibly visible from where I was sitting – she even gave three shouts during the few silences of the piece. It was an odd occurrence for audience members.
The highlight of the evening was Mr. Tilson Thomas’s superb rendering of the Introduction and Mystic Circles of the Young Girls during Part II of the piece. During the introduction, the explosion of low notes almost sounded primordial, played slowly but with an intense energy. The orchestra seemed happy to emphasize all of the otherworldly timbres such as the muted trumpets and seemingly out of tune violins. This extra effort to shade made the two mysterious movements have intrigue and mystery giving way to the inevitable violent conclusion, which both Mr. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra made sure to make exciting. Through it though, they didn’t lose that exactness or transparency. As always with the Rite the crowd gave a well-deserved long applause. I look forward to hearing both Mr. Tilson Tomas (March 5, March 6, May 1, and May 2) and Mr. Kavakos (February 6 and March 3) again in Carnegie this season after such great opener to the season (excluding the gala).