Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stravinsky Summer Solstice

The San Francisco Symphony has been celebrating the summer solstice with a week of Igor Stravinsky concerts (above) anchored by four performances of The Rite of Spring under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. I went to the Friday concert featuring the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble (below) from Russia singing the composer's first 1917 version of the ballet Les Noces with a small percussion ensemble and four pianos.

Due to a failure in either moving parts or technology, the photos I took of the 14-member group on Friday evening have vanished into the digital ether, which is too bad because the Ensemble not only sounded great but were hugely photogenic. They started with a collection of Traditional Russian Village Wedding Songs that telescoped the months-long, elaborate set of musical rituals involved in a village marriage, from matchmaking to wedding night consummation with the parents at the bedroom door. As the program notes,"The main goal of the Russian wedding is acceptance by the whole community." The Ensemble sang a capella with a few homemade percussion instruments, and the effect was so striking that my companion James Paar's jaw dropped open for most of the performance. "I thought Stravinsky invented all those musical effects," he said later, "but they already existed."

Particularly striking is how Asiatic rather than Western the music sounds, which carried over into Stravinsky's modernistic balletic mashup of Russian peasant wedding music, Les Noces. The performance by the Ensemble and pianists/percussionists was splendid, though almost destroyed by Davies Hall audio engineers, who probably should not have amplified the singers at all since they didn't really need it. Why amplified sound at San Francisco's major orchestral hall is consistently the worst in town is a mystery, but I wish somebody would figure it out. For a glimpse of the Ensemble performing Les Noces at the Mariinsky Theatre under Thomas Ades in 2007, click here for a YouTube clip. For a rapturous description of the piece itself, check out Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight who was at Davies Hall on Friday.

The full orchestra arrived onstage after intermission for the 100-year-old composition, The Rite of Spring, and though there were some very exciting stretches, this was another one of Tilson Thomas's readings where every small section of the music was overemphasized and the musical line of the piece as a whole was entirely lost. Culture Catch, a New York blog, has a nice piece by Steve Holtje about notable recordings of the Rite, and he has this to say about MTT's recording with the SF Symphony from 1996: "MTT has always been fond of emphasizing stark contrasts of dynamics, tempos, and textures; it's practically the cornerstone of his style. Here, that reaches eccentric levels; the bombastic impact of the percussion is achieved by utterly unrealistic alteration of the orchestral picture -- at the many climaxes, it seems front-and-center, spotlighted in the manner of a soloist in a concerto, especially the cymbals. The attractive plushness of the quiet moments is so completely different that after awhile, sonic whiplash sets in." Holtje also agrees with me that the 1960 Columbia Symphony recording with Stravinsky conducting is a keeper: "There's a laser-like precision here, but unlike most performances aiming for precision and clarity, Igor's also has verve and character. If you want only one Rite, this is the one to get."


Hattie said...

This just makes me too jealous! I had no idea the SF music scene was in such great shape.

Civic Center said...

Dear Hattie: We're in a new golden age, oddly enough.

Hattie said...

Yes, SF is starting to take off again, after an awful period of cultural blandness.