A Stravinsky Rarity Prefaces Thrilling Firebird

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky: Leslie Caron (narrator), Nicholas Phan (tenor), San Francisco Girls Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, San Francisco Symphony and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 21.9.2018 (HS)

StravinskyPerséphoneThe Firebird (complete)

Two of Stravinsky’s dramatic works enlivened this week’s San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts, subtitled ‘Rebellious Beauty’. The star quotient focused on the 1933 lyrical ode to spring, Perséphone, with a still-dazzling Leslie Caron voicing a flowery French-language narration to the composer’s music of diverse hues—in this case, many of them pastel.

The 87-year-old actress, sporting a flowing yellow outfit and blond-streaked hair, lent as much weight as she could to the melodramatic text, a tale of the farming god Demeter’s daughter seduced by the idea of comforting the unfortunates in Hades. In Friday’s performance, the first of three at Davies Symphony Hall, lyric tenor Charles Phan sang the engaging solo part with effortless charm. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas worked hard to unify the over-sized orchestra and three large choruses into a sleek package, but the result felt more dutiful than radiant. Oh, they realized some lovely moments in the score, redolent of Stravinsky’s gifts for orchestral color and unexpected harmonies. The driving rhythms of his other theatrical works, subdued here, made their pulse felt at times, and the tone uncannily reflected images in the text. So much loveliness certainly was not a waste of 45 minutes, but the real action came after intermission, when The Firebird arose in a blaze.

Presenting the groundbreaking uncut score, rather than one of the more often-heard suites, Tilson Thomas led the forces with the assurance of someone whose attachment to this composer—andthis particular music—may be unparalleled today. Nuances that often don’t register popped outwith clarity, such as the tinkly instrumentation of ‘The princess’ game with apples’ and the supple pulse running under ‘The round dance’. Charming moments in the complete score, such as the punchy three-trumpet obbligato at ‘daybreak’ and the evanescent ‘Disappearance of the palace and dissolution of Kashchei’s enchantments’, added extra color.

Without losing pace and cohesiveness, every segue rendered gracefully. After principal horn Robert Ward stated the finale’s theme with pristine elegance, Tilson Thomas paced the orchestra through shifting tempos, building up brick-by-brick to the big chorale at the end. It felt well-earned, and in response, the audience contributed an appropriately raging ovation.

Harvey Steiman

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