Primary tabs

Stravinsky Played to the Rafters

April 10, 2007

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opened two weeks of his minifestival of Stravinsky-Plus-One last week in Davies Symphony Hall. The San Francisco Symphony programs of both last week and this week are essentially a survey of Stravinsky's wide interests, but with each program offering an important piece by one other composer. What makes such adventures so unusual is how well local audiences eat up such programming in big gulps, especially when the results are as exhilarating as they were at the Thursday matinee.

Michael Tilson Thomas

MTT opened with the Divertimento from Stravinsky's ballet Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss) from 1928, based on a wide burst of lesser piano pieces and songs by Tchaikovsky. Then came a Stravinsky blockbuster, his Symphony in Three Movements (1945). Following intermission we heard Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op.13, Winter Daydreams, in its standard third version of 1874. The packed house cheered everything, as indeed was absolutely deserved.

All of the three mature Stravinsky symphonies were written for American orchestras: Symphony of Psalms for the Boston Symphony, Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony, and the Symphony in Three Movements for the New York Philharmonic. But in several ways, the last owes the most to American influences. It even ends with a big-band jazz chord, a la Duke Ellington.

Stravinsky was well-planted in Hollywood during the World War II years, and there's lots that we can thank the movie industry for in his Symphony in Three Movements. Southern California was home to a large number of European composers at the time, not least Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But the expats included Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman, Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Ernst Toch, and more — all of whom had made respected careers in Europe. Most wrote at least a few film scores, though in that field Stravinsky and Schoenberg remained also-rans.
Igor to Be in the Movies
In fact, Symphony in Three Movements drew most of its first two movements from failed movie projects. Stravinsky actually worked on three aborted films, including a documentary on the Nazi invasion of Norway, some scenes for (can you believe it?) the Song of Bernadette, and Orson Welles' never-to-be realized Jane Eyre movie. It's not difficult to visualize goose-stepping troops during the opening march of the symphony's first movement. That likely accounts for the movement's general violence. The bulk of music in the slow movement was created for the "Apparition of the Virgin" scene in the Bernadette film. (Stravinsky's Four Norwegian Moods also derives from the invasion documentary, while the hunt scene music for Welles' project became the central movement of Stravinsky's three-movement Ode.)

The orchestra played the symphony with bayonets fixed, full out and seething with aggressive energy. MTT spared no ferocity during the first movement, taken at up to Stravinsky's brisk tempo marking and as emphatically accented as anything you will ever encounter in The Rite of Spring. That, it seems to me, was exactly as it should have been. My only criticism was that the percussionists overdid their dynamics. They are supposed to be loud, not deafening.

By extreme contrast, the slow movement virtually purred with poised gentility. The result was almost, but not quite, akin to Debussy in his pastoral mode. Then that joyous fugal finale almost burst with glee. And here all the tricky chamber music passages were amazingly well-balanced. Stravinsky used some pretty outlandish instrumentation for those, like beginning one fugue with solo trombone, then adding in a piano to answer, and then adding a soft-voiced harp. That's like trying to blend the sounds of an 18-wheeler truck against a skateboard and a scooter. But MTT and the orchestra pulled it off to perfection, as they had throughout the whole of this concerto for orchestra masquerading as a symphony.
A Velvety Playing of the Young Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is in no way as immature a work as you might expect for an Op. 13. True, the original dates from 1866 when the composer was only 26. He revised it almost immediately. Eight years later he rewrote it again, at the more-experienced age of 34. He already had behind him both the popular Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture — in reality, a one-movement symphony — and his First Quartet, as well as the skills to shortly add his First Piano Concerto and his ballet score for Swan Lake.

Tilson Thomas had the orchestra playing a velvet performance of the symphony, really letting loose only during the glare of Tchaikovsky's knock-'em-dead finale. The feeling for color achieved the type of sonic beauty you normally associate with the Boston Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic. Adding to this was MTT's cogent tempo selections from the podium. It's a wonderfully effective piece brimming with inspiration and originality. I have never understood the work's neglect.

The Fairy's Kiss is a link that binds Stravinsky to Tchaikovsky. Naturally, the end result sounds more like the former composer than the latter, since tunes alone do not music make. Stravinsky drew all the originals from a wide swath of Tchaikovsky's creativity, all the way from his Op. 1 through Op. 63. What Stravinsky accomplished was to put the themes through something like a cubistic, rhythmic frame of accompaniments, much as he'd done with Pergolesi's music in Pulcinella.

The performance opened a bit shabbily, with minor intonation problems and less than flawless ensemble. But it soon settled down, highlighted by some particularly snazzy playing from the horns and woodwinds, whose players all took well-deserved solo bows.

Just before beginning the Tchaikovsky symphony, MTT made note of a yearly event: recognition of a number of retired San Francisco Symphony members present in the audience. Tilson Thomas asked them to rise for an appreciative round of applause by the entire house. It was a touching experience for everyone.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.