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Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, San Francisco Symphony Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 23, 2004 (HS)

 

The video gear was out in force this week as the San Francisco Symphony tackled Stravinsky, one of its real strengths under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. They got a good one, as Thomas and the orchestra galloped through a colorful program that began with three sections from The Firebird and finished with a Rite of Spring that must have lifted the roof on Davies Hall a few inches. In between, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 "Little Russian" managed to outshine them both.

 

Nine cameras were arrayed about the stage, including one on tracks rolling back and forth behind the violins and harps and another on a long boom sweeping over the orchestra. They were there to capture the performance for the second installment of the orchestra's multimedia project, Keeping Score, which debuted earlier this year with an inside look at a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. It was aired recently on PBS, the public television network, and issued on DVD.

 

Thursday's performance of Stravinsky's music offered traversals of admirable clarity, transparency and power in the Stravinsky pieces, and distinctive solo turns, especially from the orchestra's principal horn Robert Ward and the bassoonists, principal Stephen Paulson and associate principal Steven Dibner.

 

There's always a theme for a Michael Tilson Thomas program, a welcome feature ever since the conductor arrived 10 years ago as music director, and the point of the Keeping Score installment is to explore how composers can elevate folk music elements to something sublime. Stravinsky's ballets show this nicely, and Tchaikovsky's symphony gets its nickname from the folk tunes that populate it, "Little Russia" being a sobriquet for the Ukraine.

 

Too bad the cameras were off for the utterly disarming, charming performance of the Tchaikovsky. The musicians got into a perfect frame of mind for this symphony. You could feel the dance lilt in the rhythmic pulse and the lovely simplicity in Ward's reading of the Ukrainian tune that opens the piece. The little march that skips through the second movement had a gentle swagger and the scherzo zipped by in a flurry of nimble quick waltzes and dances. The lively finale, with its stomping folk tune that wouldn't be out of place late in the evening of a wedding feast outside Moscow when the guests have two or three too many glasses of vodka, brimmed with fun. Tchaikovsky stays with the same tune for most of the movement, changing the accompaniment like a shifting kaleidoscope. It is easy for this to come off as repetitive, but this performance just felt like it was building gradually in intensity.

 

The three final sections of The Firebird, which opened the concert, found the orchestra in resplendent form, especially in the quiet, shimmering moments of the Lullaby and the sonorous utterances of the brass in the Finale. Those who have heard this band play Rite of Spring, however, may well remember performances that got just a little more rhythmic bite and that last degree of wild abandon in the climaxes better than this one. There was plenty of vibrant playing, even if a few ragged entrances and marginally underpowered big moments took the slightest edge off the overall effect.

 

The best moments were the quietest. Paulson's opening bassoon solo, rather than being the desperate wail it often is, had an almost lyrical quality, making it feel like a call to prayer. The hushed strings in the Spring Round Dances in Part I and the shimmering introduction to Part II were magical, and the sonorities in the winds and brass felt especially graceful even in the more raucous passages -- which may have been part of the reason this felt like it could have had even more impact. A little raucousness is just what this music needs, and it takes a full effort from the whole band, not just thumping bass drums and pointed timpani work, to make it happen.

 

They may be able to fix it for the DVD through the magic of editing and retakes. As a live concert, this was one occasion when Tchaikovsky trumped Stravinsky.

 

Harvey Steiman



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