Michael Tilson Thomas’s Panoply of Riches from Igor Stravinsky

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 27.9.2018. (HS)

StravinskyPetrushka (1947 version); Violin Concerto; Le Sacre du printemps (1947 version)

Whenever the San Francisco Symphony does Stravinsky you can count on all of the composer’s tricky rhythms, orchestral colors and pungent harmonies coming through with clarity. Such was the case in the orchestra’s second Stravinsky-heavy program in two weeks, which the orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas will bring to Carnegie Hall on October 4.

Heard Thursday in the first of four performances at Davies Symphony Hall, the main event was Le Sacre du printemps, with Tilson Thomas so clear that one could picture the score. That said, it missed that extra measure of feral ferocity this orchestra has delivered in exciting performances in the past, most recently in 2017 under conductor Susanna Mälkki.

Maybe that was the point. The famous opening bassoon solo, played by principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson, shimmered with lovely purity of tone, almost like a lullaby, rather than the usual primitive cry. The stomping rhythms that emerged next felt like a well-executed rain dance, rather than the prelude to the human sacrifice that ends the proceedings a half-hour later.

It all flowed smoothly, as the various strands pieced themselves together with sureness. Individual sections made their often-complex rhythmic harmonic contributions with easy articulation. Tilson Thomas managed dynamics with care. What did emerge was the beauty and eeriness of the quieter sections.

But this Rite did not get me to my core, even as principal percussionist Jacob Nissly and timpanist Edward Stephan whacked away at the big drums to inject some explosiveness.

Petrushka was more like it. The big, broad outer movements pulsed with energy and each section stepped to the fore with terrific presence. All the manic activity of the opening ‘Shrove-tide Fair’ lashed across the landscape with breathless character. Tilson Thomas neatly fit the various element — a hurdy-gurdy moment, the Russian dance, another brilliant solo from principal trumpet Mark Inouye, and pungent flourishes from the entire brass section — into the pace without losing an ounce of momentum.

The two moody inner movements — the indoor scenes in the ballet — offered a kaleidoscope of emotional twists, buoyed by the woodwinds painting a range of colors. The finale whipped by in a series of near-cinematic cuts — here an eerie tonal expiation of dread, there a punch of brass for a scary jump. The exhale of the final measures created a perfect musical question mark.

Between the ballet scores, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, looking nonchalant, executed the trickiest passages in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. The 1931 score, which brims with Neo-Classical verve, emerged with precision from all hands. The highlights were the two middle sections, ‘Aria I’ and ‘Aria II’, the Bach-like melodies emerging with guileless sweetness under the violinist’s fingers. The finale, a race to the finish, came off with polish. Kavakos turned to face Alexander Barantschik when the concertmaster supplied a deft and witty obbligato to the soloist’s line, a brief moment of musical wit that fit Stravinsky’s own.

Harvey Steiman

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