Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, provide illuminating “Perspective” on Stravinsky

Fri Oct 05, 2018 at 12:30 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Jennifer Taylor

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Jennifer Taylor

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas likes to recall how, as a precocious teenager in Los Angeles, he sat in on rehearsals of new works by Igor Stravinsky conducted by the composer himself. He remembers the master as elegant in manner and very particular about what he wanted.

Those same qualities distinguished the all-Stravinsky program Tilson Thomas led with the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall Thursday night. No passions torn to tatters, no striving for effect—just lived-in and finely detailed renderings of the repertoire standards: Pétrouchka, Le sacre du printemps and the Violin Concerto.

During the 2018-19 season, Tilson Thomas will present several concerts at Carnegie in the hall’s “Perspectives” series, highlighting his particular musical interests. We can be grateful that Stravinsky is one of them.

Tilson Thomas has also celebrated his family roots in Yiddish theater, and in the opening pages of Pétrouchka Thursday one could feel the excitement and anticipation of the crowd before the curtain goes up. If the crisp execution of the brilliant Russian Dance didn’t quite carry over into the softer swirly passages, there was plenty of astute characterization in the puppet’s silky wake-up dance and other episodes.

And in those inevitable moments when the ballet score was marking time and one wished for dancers, it seemed as though principal trumpeter Mark Inouye was always there to save the day with a heel-clicking Spanish dance tune, a legato Russian folksong, or a nose-thumbing jeer from the sassy puppet.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos led the way in the neoclassical Violin Concerto with a stylish and appealing performance, and Tilson Thomas had the orchestra stepping out smartly in support. The soloist, who has also performed as a conductor, projected Stravinsky’s humorous play of meters and accents with his whole body as well as his sound.

Felicitous touches in Kavakos’s performance included playing well with others when orchestral woodwinds took the lead, and just the right amount of bow-scratch to make Stravinsky’s strutting staccatos pop.

The violinist clearly characterized the shifting moods of the “Aria 1” movement, from meditative to scherzando, and allowed his vibrato to bloom a bit amid the tender sentiments of the “Aria 2.”  The work closed with a “Capriccio” rather than a hard-driving finale, but Kavakos’s lively and arresting playing made for a brilliant conclusion nonetheless.

Kavakos responded to the enthusiastic applause with a son-of-Stravinsky encore, the neoclassical, high-stepping second movement of the Sonata for Solo Violin by the violinist’s fellow Athenian, Nikos Skalkottas.

You know you’re hearing a seasoned performance of The Rite of Spring when the fortissimos come in different colors. In place of the one-size-fits-all barbaric roar, Tilson Thomas went bright and brassy in some sections and almost lush in others. Even the bass drum and timpani, which play such a conspicuous role in this score, knew when to deploy the boom, the rumble, or the cannon shot.

The conductor’s canny pacing put the score’s sudden outbursts in perspective (so to speak), not giving away the store in the first fierce fortissimo, but leaving room for bigger shocks to follow. And when those shocks came, they didn’t spend themselves immediately, but echoed through the quieter episodes that followed, imparting forward momentum to the entire performance.

Alert and engaged on the podium, Tilson Thomas never blew his Stravinskian cool, trusting his players to deliver both the big moments and the intricate passages with superb coordination and transparent textures. There may have been more frenzied Rites (Bernstein, of course) and just plain louder ones (van Zweden last month with the Philharmonic), but one could argue that the fires of this piece burn hotter when contained, as the San Franciscans did Thursday.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann performs cabaret and operetta songs with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Jochen Rieder conducting, at Carnegie Hall, 8 p.m. Friday. Limited availability. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.

One Response to “Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, provide illuminating “Perspective” on Stravinsky”

  1. Posted Oct 05, 2018 at 8:09 pm by CastaDiva

    Excellent review of a wonderful performance. I went to it, and enjoyed every moment.

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