Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave the first performance in the second week of its two-week series of concerts devoted entirely to the music of Igor Stravinsky. As was the case last week, the program contrasted the Russian and Neoclassical periods of Stravinsky’s development as a composer; and only one neoclassical composition was performed. That piece was the 1931 violin concerto in D, which predated last week’s Neoclassical offering, “Perséphone,” by about two years. It was framed on either side by each of the two ballet scores that followed “The Firebird.” These were presented in chronological order, opening with “Petrushka” (composed in 1911 but performed in its 1947 revision) and concluding with “The Rite of Spring” (composed in 1913 and again performed in its 1947 revision).
The concerto soloist was the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who has been consistently welcome in the performances he has brought to Davies. Furthermore, the music was far more representative of Stravinsky’s Neoclassical thinking than “Perséphone” had been last week. It also reflected a far more sanguine attitude towards string instruments, both solo and ensemble, than was encountered in “Perséphone.”
From a structural point of view, the movement titles may best be viewed as a friendly nod to Johann Sebastian Bach. The concerto begins with a “Toccata” (as several of Bach’s keyboard compositions had done). It is then followed by a succession of two movements called “Aria,” possibly with a nod to Bach’s larger-scale sacred compositions. It then concludes with a “Capriccio” (the title Bach used for a keyboard composition dedicated to his brother).
Unlike Bach, however, Stravinsky endowed these four movements with a unifying concept, a single chord (if one can call it that) that leaps across two wide intervals:
The chord that unifies the movements of Stravinsky’s violin concerto (digital notation by McLennonSon, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
When Samuel Dushkin, for whom the concerto was written, first saw this chord, he deemed it unplayable; but he then discovered that it fit comfortably on his hands when taking into account the strings of his violin. Stravinsky would call this chord the “passport” to the entire concerto.
Most listeners probably recognize that each movement begins with a single chord based on wide intervals, even if they do not realize that it is the same chord recurring across the concerto. However, this chord serves simply to get the listener’s attention (which it does very well), after which each movement develops its own thematic vocabulary. One would hardly confuse Stravinsky’s approach to exposition and development with anything Bach ever wrote, but one can still detect the twinkle in his eye as each movement concludes with a gesture of recapitulation.
That twinkle was clearly evident, in the gestural approaches to his violin if not in his eye, in Kavakos’ approach to the solo work Stravinsky had written. Those high spirits were complemented by the dazzling display on instrumental sonorities that provide the framework for those violin solos. Indeed, the wide intervals of that “passport” chord portend not only extreme registers in the instrumental writing but also highly imaginative approaches to how the instruments are combined. MTT clearly caught the high spirits of this music, resulting in a highly satisfying account of the characteristics that distinguished Stravinsky’s Neoclassical style.
Both of the ballet scores on the program constitute a significant departure from the more conventional approach Stravinsky had taken to “The Firebird.” Nevertheless, each of these scores is decidedly Russian; and some excellent scholarly studies have been written that provide roadmaps for all of the sources of Russian folk music that emerge in each of the ballets. (In the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky there is a scene in which Stravinsky is teaching his children to sing one of the tunes he incorporated into his “Petrushka” score.) Furthermore, both of the ballets reflect on different aspects of Russian life, although the “prehistoric” setting for “The Rite of Spring” is significantly less authentic than the evocation of a nineteenth-century pre-Lenten carnival is in “Petrushka.”
Musically, however, “The Rite of Spring” is the score that has burned its way into the annals of music history. There is no need to retell the story of the riot that broke out during the first performance of the ballet. Provocation had as much to do with the crude departures from the traditions of classical ballet that choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had concocted as with the incessant volleys of dissonance that assaulted the listeners’ ears in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. (To be fair, however, listeners were already on edge after the opening notes of a bassoon in an inordinately high register.)
By now I have lost track of the number of times I have listened to this score in Davies. Indeed, I have lost track of the number of times I have listened just to MTT conducting that score. Nevertheless, I have always come away with the sense of a fresh and in-the-moment account that consistently provides me with different ways of perceiving the many adventurous qualities of Stravinsky’s score.
Last night I had a particularly good vantage point from which I could appreciate the prodigious diversity of instruments Stravinsky deployed in that score. (I still have no idea how they all fit into an orchestra pit for a ballet performance.) As in the past MTT always found the right way to blend those resources, keeping the dissonances as shocking as ever by virtue of their sharp contrasts with quieter passages.
“Petrushka” similarly draws upon the resources of a large ensemble, although many of its approaches to dissonance are far more subtle (such as representing the title character as a fanfare in parallel tritones). Most important, however, is the music for the crowd scenes. Michel Fokine could not have been more ingenious in summoning up carnival images in which many things happen at once, distributed across the stage. Even more ingenious, however, was Stravinsky’s ability to endow each of those “things” with its own thematic representation. He could then summon up simultaneities in the score that reflected every simultaneity on stage arising from Fokine’s choreography.
The fact is that this score makes the most sense when one listens to it while viewing that choreography. The ballet itself makes for one of the most imaginative conjunctions of the visual and the auditory that one is ever likely to encounter in the history of staged works performed to music accompaniment. For the most part MTT knew exactly how to manage all of that auditory diversity, making for a performance that could stand just as well on its own, even for those unfamiliar with Fokine’s choreography.
Nevertheless, there is one point in which Stravinsky’s almost seems to be defying the conductor to give a fair account of all of that diversity. In the last of the four tableaux, the first episode is a dance of wet-nurses to a familiar Russian folk tune. When that tune is first stated in its entirety, Stravinsky snuck into the parts for the high winds a recapitulation of the opening theme of the entire score. So much is going on at that point that, more often than not, those winds are inaudible; and one has to wonder whether Stravinsky was playing a practical joke on his conductor, Pierre Monteux. As might be guessed, one is more likely to detect that recapitulation on a well-engineered recording (such as the one that Monteux himself made many years later with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) than in an actual performance; and I really had to struggle to convince myself that the opening theme was one of the many threads woven together in last night’s account. In the grand scheme of things, however, this is a mere mote in the metaphorical eye of the beholder!