Now in his next-to-last season as Music Director of the San Francisco SymphonyMichael Tilson Thomas set aside two weeks of subscription concerts for a Stravinsky festival, meaningfully entitled “Rebellious Beauty”. The first program paired The Firebird and the rarely performed Perséphone; the second surrounded the Violin Concerto with Petrushka Suite and The Rite of Spring. Juxtaposing works from different periods of Stravinsky’s creative output, MTT shed light again on the unique character of his compositional style permeating the entire spectrum of his work, either modernist or neoclassical. For a very long time, critics and public alike perceived an unsurmountable chasm between early and late Stravinsky. MTT underlined again the continuity, the common traits: the characteristic approach to harmony, the uneven, punctuated rhythms, the ability to constantly bring back the same themes basked in a fresh light, the unexpected lyricism that connects Stravinsky’s music to Tchaikovsky’s, the wit and the ludic.

Leonidas Kavakos, Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFO © Cory Weaver
Leonidas Kavakos, Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFO
© Cory Weaver


MTT has been for a long time an outstanding performer of Stravinsky’s music. He is one of the very few major conductors of today that can claim bona fide links with the composer as interpreter of his own works, during Tilson Thomas' formative years in Southern California. Moreover, with his family roots originating in Russia, he is more capable than others to bring forward the deep connections with the Russian folklore that inform Stravinsky’s modernism.

The centerpiece of Saturday night’s performance at the Davies Symphony Hall, the Violin Concerto in D major, was written in 1931 as a commission for Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. The composer had doubts regarding his ability to write for an instrument he didn’t feel he was familiar enough with, but Dushkin, as well as German composer Paul Hindemith, encouraged him to proceed, volunteering to assist with any technical issues. The result, far from being a virtuoso showpiece in the traditional sense, compensates for the apparent disdain for pyrotechnics with a wonderfully intimate character. MTT highlighted the music’s dance-like qualities and well maintained the balance between the expansiveness of the outer movements and the dreamy inner ones in this Baroque inspired structure. Having as soloist the incomparable Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos made a forceful argument for the piece deserving more exposure as one of the lesser known masterpieces of the 20th century violin literature. Kavakos demonstrated again his penchant for clarity, accuracy and thoroughly sculpted details and his respect for the orchestra. The reflective, lyrical mood he emphasized in the second Aria was especially noticeable.

If Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is better known as an accompaniment to a Balanchine choreography, the two explicit ballet scores on the program – Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – are nowadays staples of the pure orchestral repertoire, despite their tremendous interpretative demands. In both pieces, the SFO’s playing under MTT's baton was, as expected, urgent and driven. The treachery of the jagged rhythms and the strenuous balance between different timbres were handled with utmost care. Every individual intervention, apparently imbued with a certain degree of freedom, fitted perfectly in its own slot of this uncanny sound canvas.

In Petrushka especially, MTT let the folkloric motifs shine through, avoiding the cold, technical reading that other performers push forward. Several images were evoked with great vividness: the apparition of the master of ceremonies, the ballerina waltzing with the Moor, the peasant and his dancing bear, and Petrushka’s ghost appearing on the roof.

From the initial bassoon lament (Stephen Paulson) to the final Danse sacrale, the conductor proposed a version of The Rite of Spring which was more of a buildup than a flamboyant and futile attempt to make today’s listeners re-experience what the Parisian public felt at the work’s 1913 première. Relentlessly pushing the music forward, with a clear sense of inevitability, he balanced the many moments of loud, abrasive dissonances with several of unbridled lyricism, particularly in the first part.

The Davies Hall program will be repeated next week in New York’s Carnegie Hall where the SFO and its maestro will inaugurate the 2018-2019 season. It’s a great well-deserved honor, celebrating their decades-long successful collaboration.

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