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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Tilson Thomas Brings SF's Revelatory Stravinsky To NYC

REVIEW: Tilson Thomas Brings SF's Revelatory Stravinsky To NYC

October 5, 2018

By Brian Taylor

Michael Tilson Thomas led his San Francisco Symphony for the second night in a row at Carnegie Hall, in a thrilling all-Stravinsky program. The maestro will retire next year from his post as music director of the ensemble he has shaped into one of the best performing orchestras around. Tonight’s charged performances of Stravinsky’s challenging masterworks gave New York audiences a taste of the rewards of this fruitful partnership between conductor and orchestra.

Stravinsky's 1911 ballet Pétrouchka, about a puppet that comes to life (sort of like Pinnochio) to be burdened by human conditions such as love and jealousy, opens with a musical tableau of a Mardi Gras-like festival in 1830's St. Petersburg, and like the sweeping rise of a theatrical curtain, it instantly transports the listener to a buzzing, exotic place. The piece's intrinsic drama gives the orchestra much to do, from agitated passagework to dainty solos and quoting Russian folksong. Each section of the orchestra is given ample opportunity to shine, and the San Francisco players did so brightly. Winning solo playing emerged from every corner of the ensemble, from the expressive flute, to the fearless trumpet, to the driving drum rolls that announce changes of scene. Tilson Thomas, his hair disheveled by the work's conclusion, appeared to work harder than usual to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction, as it constantly shifts gears.  

A taste of Stravinsky's later, ironic neoclassical style was the right palette-cleanser to follow, as Leonidas Kavakos joined the orchestra to play the Violin Concerto from 1931. He commands his instrument with exceptional control, and dispatches the hectic opening Toccata with deceptive ease. Tilson Thomas took a backseat in the concerto, carefully managing the accompanying orchestral textures, and only occasionally did the hall's wetter acoustics give the impression that the orchestra was racing to keep up with Kavakos's boundless energy. The heart of the piece is in its two inner movements, Aria I and Aria II, the latter of which in particular provided Kavakos the chance to emphasize his long-lined phrasing and rich expression.

Following intermission, Tilson Thomas led one of the most scintillating performances of The Rite of Spring imaginable. After Jaap van Zweden's impressive interpretation with the New York Philharmonic last month, it was exciting to witness a rather different take on this infamous 1913 masterpiece. There's a lot to unpack in Stravinsky's greatest hit, a depiction of pagan Russia. The piece's opening passage, with its birdsong-like woodwind tendrils, was played with more repose and a longer arc here than in van Zweden's version, but then as the piece unfolds, Tilson Thomas emphasizes a sense of urgency, revealing the raw emotional stakes explored in the earthy, rhythmically gregarious music. The orchestra's unbridled, yet highly focused energy, and round, fleshy timbre harkened to a primitive time when the horror of human sacrifice was viewed as necessary for tomorrow to come. The vibrations moving through the auditorium were so visceral that screams were elicited from someone in the audience, and others could be seen dancing along. It was revelatory.

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