On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear my first musical event of the new season as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Stravinsky program. Only the evening before, the same ensemble and conductor had performed at the hall's Opening Night Gala, a more star studded event than this perhaps but with a more lightweight program.
The concert began with one of the composer's early successes, the ballet Pétrouchka (1910-1911, rev. 1947). Of all he works Stravinsky composed for the Diaghiliev and the Ballets Russes I've always thought this the most successful. The music, most especially the famous Pétrouchka Chord that introduces the title character, is among the most original Stravinsky ever composed. And yet so perfectly does it fit the ballet storyline that one can easily imagine a fully staged puppet theater as one listens to the music. According to Carnegie Hall's program notes, the work was initially conceived as a "quasi-concerto" for orchestra and piano - which explains the inclusion of this instrument whose presence throughout seems strangely out of place - before Stravinsky devised for it a definite program, one which Diaghilev immediately associated with the popular puppet character Petrushka. The score, at this performance the revised 1947 version, is filled with a pathos one does not normally associate with Stravinsky, the arch-modernist.
The next work was the Violin Concerto in D major (1931) featuring Leonidas Kavakos as guest artist. Compared to the other works on the program, the Concerto is performed much less frequently than it deserves. The last time I can remember having heard it, in fact, was at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist. The piece was written, at the suggestion of Stravinsky's German publisher Willie Strecker, for the violinist Samuel Dushkin. Stravinsky, who lacked familiarity with the violin, entered into the collaboration with the understanding that Dushkin would assist him in the technical aspects of the composition. If Stravinsky lacked confidence in his ability to write for the violin, however, it's nowhere apparent in any of the four movments, and the work is among the most innovative achievements of his neoclassical period. In this respect it was typical of him to have conceived an opening chord that Dushkin originally considered unplayable. The final movement, in particular, is as thrilling a piece of music as any Stravinsky composed.
After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of what is undoubtedly Stravinsky's best known work, the infamous Le sacre du printemps (1913), which I had last heard performed at Carnegie Hall on its 2016 Opening Night when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.
So fixed a place in the repertoire has Le Sacre du printemps now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests. Everyone knows the story of the infamous 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music. (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.) What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition. Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience. There are very few works so gripping as this. Ironically, the work's very intensity has transformed it from one of the most controversial pieces in the repertoire to a crowdpleaser that is dutifully trotted out at least once or twice a season while other important works by the composer languish in relative obscurity.
Under its long term music director, the SFS has long since become a top-tier ensemble, definitely one of the best American orchestras. If Thursday evening's performance was not a transcendent experience, it was nevertheless an excellent opportunity to hear a fine group of musicians perform works by one of the twentieth century's most important composers. I only wish the program had focused less on Stravinsky's works for the Ballets Russes, no matter how popular and accessible, and more on those later pieces that better defined his place as one of the three great modernists.