Orchestral Showpieces with a Los Angeles Core

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, John Adams: Thomas Hampson (baritone), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 18.6.2016. (HS)

Stravinsky: Scènes de ballet

John Adams: The Wound-Dresser

Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

Michael Tilson Thomas must have had some musical connections in mind when he juxtaposed Stravinsky with John Adams in what turned out to be a stunning concert. And though it was hard to discern the reasons for surrounding Adams’ mournful The Wound-Dresser with Stravinsky’s quirky Scènes de ballet and the rousing Petrushka, but the results were riveting.

Heard Saturday, each work emerged with clarity, dripping with expressiveness, delineating everything from Stravinsky’s musical wit, to the deep human understanding Adams achieved in his 1989 setting of Whitman’s poetry. In the end, it was enough to luxuriate in brilliant music-making and the emotional highs and lows.

As the night’s gravitational center, Adams’s dark tones undulated and shimmered in a sensitive reading by baritone Thomas Hampson. He underlined the poet’s words with precise diction, graceful legato, and burnished tone rolling out, emphasizing the long line. The Wound-Dresser pierces hearts with its detailed depiction of a male nurse tending to Civil War soldiers, who are missing limbs and dying from horrendous injuries. And written at the height of the AIDs epidemic, the piece is filled with allusions to so many comforting partners of those with the disease.

Though Stravinsky was one of Adams’s primary influences, The Wound-Dresser owes more to Charles Ives, another composer Adams admired and often emulated. The presence of a solo trumpet in the balcony certainly calls to mind The Unanswered Question, as do dense clusters of quiet chords.

In contrast, Stravinsky’s Scènes de ballet opened with program with frivolity. Soon after he had immigrated to the United States, Stravinsky wrote this 1944 work for a Broadway revue organized by the impresario Billy Rose. A pastiche of ballet clichés and Broadway references, the piece shifts from mock-seriousness to gaiety in a flash, and delivered so much more than the notes on the page might suggest. In this performance, one could almost trace Stravinsky’s accented English and wit in every musical gesture.

 When Tilson Thomas plays Stravinsky it is something to anticipate: the conductor knows his way around the composer’s music, because they got to know each other when Tilson Thomas was growing up in Los Angeles. Those looking forward to the concert’s second half could not have been disappointed in the robust and technicolor Petrushka. It’s easy to forget how critical sonic balances and tonal colors are in Stravinsky, but these were key to Saturday’s triumph. And though the 1947 version was used, with reduced instrumentation, there was nothing missing from the full-throated sound.

The ensemble did a beautiful job with everything from bright gleams to rich densities (plus a couple of well-timed and executed contrabassoon “farts”). A long list of solos created moments of magic, most impressively those of principal trumpet Mark Inouye, with fanfare punctuations and jaunty runs. Tim Day’s flute solos, though they could get breathy at the top, caught the innate whimsy—just a few highs of a thrilling performance.

Harvey Steiman


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