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A Rare Side-by-Side of a Thrilling Stravinsky

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Carnegie Hall opened its new season on Wednesday with a determinedly festive gala program featuring Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Guest stars RenĂ©e Fleming and Audra McDonald sang opera and musical theater favorites wonderfully, and there was Gershwin galore, including a stylish account of “An American in Paris.”

But the real start of the season, for me, came the next night when Mr. Thomas returned with his San Francisco players for a Stravinsky program. Mr. Thomas is presenting a Perspectives series at Carnegie throughout the season, and if Thursday’s program did not look that adventurous on paper, bracketed by two staples, the mix of pieces was telling and the performances were thrilling.

He opened with “Petrouchka” and ended with “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”). In between, Mr. Thomas led the 1931 Violin Concerto. It might have seemed curious to include this astringent Neo-Classical score alongside the teeming “Petrouchka” and still-shocking “Sacre.” But with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, the performance emphasized the rhythmically jagged and harmonically crunchy elements of the music in a way that made the concerto seem radical on its own terms.

Though the concerto doesn’t turn up on orchestra programs that often, it’s a staple of the New York City Ballet (including this season), one of many Stravinsky scores that George Balanchine choreographed. On Thursday night, by coincidence, the New York Philharmonic also performed the concerto, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist, on Jaap van Zweden’s latest program as the orchestra’s music director. I caught the second performance on Friday, a rare chance to hear contrasting, and equally exciting, accounts of an elusive score.

The opening Toccata nods to the heritage of that Baroque-era form, which typically involves lively tempos and rapid-fire runs. Stravinsky’s toccata unfolds in animated strands, full of spiraling figures for the violin and bursts of dancing chords. But the music is continuously fractured and disrupted. Playing with rhythmic bite and a touch of impishness, Mr. Kavakos made it seem like Stravinsky had intriguingly reassembled the broken pieces of a toccata in the wrong order. Mr. Kavakos captured the ambiguity of the mellow Aria I movement, which shifts between nervously skittish and melodically yearning passages. Aria II finally gives the soloist a chance to spin out long lyrical phrases, though they wander unpredictably. Playing with emphatic brio and earthy tone, Mr. Kavakos captured the manic energy of the discombobulating Capriccio finale.

One reason this concerto is not a top choice for violinists looking to make an impression with an orchestra appearance is that Stravinsky often keeps the soloist in a seemingly subordinate role: taking a turn trading phrases with solos in the orchestra; dispatching repetitive riffs to prop up some forceful episode in the strings or winds.

But at the Philharmonic on Friday the brilliant Ms. Josefowicz was having none of that. One of the most dynamic musicians of her generation, Ms. Josefowicz seized on every phrase of the violin part to bring out its character and musical content. She made the most of each moment, playing with brightness, mystery, eagerness — whatever the music called for. Mr. van Zweden drew vibrant, punchy playing from the orchestra.

This program, overall, was the most successful of his tenure so far. I had had doubts over the level of Mr. van Zweden’s commitment to contemporary music. But each of his programs so far has opened with a compelling performance of an ambitious premiere. This time it was Louis Andriessen’s episodic and mercurial “Agamemnon,” a 20-minute tone-poem inspired by Greek antiquity.

The lavishly orchestrated score abounds in raucous, militaristic fanfares; eerie high-pitched chords and grumbling percussion, all to suggest the warlike atmosphere that permeates Agamemnon’s public and family lives. Mr. Andriessen, a Dutch modernist master, has been deeply influenced by jazz. But as in other works of his, the jazz elements here are processed through his acute ear and powerful imagination. Bouts of thick, piercing chords make the orchestra fleetingly sound like a modern-day big band; frenetic thematic lines, for all their pointillist leaps and intensity, almost seem improvised. Under Mr. van Zweden, a fellow Dutchman, the Philharmonic will be exploring the music of Mr. Andriessen this month.

On this thoughtfully conceived program, the Andriessen piece led to the Stravinsky concerto. After intermission came an austerely beautiful account of Stravinsky’s tartly sonorous Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Stravinsky dedicated this 1920 work to his friend Debussy, who had died in 1918. So it made both musical and biographical sense to end with Debussy’s “La Mer.” While at times the performance led by Mr. van Zweden was overly emphatic, as is his penchant, it was certainly a bold, almost cinematic “La Mer.”

After Mr. van Zweden opened the Philharmonic season with an alternately bombastic and ponderous account of Stravinsky’s “Sacre,” it was a treat to hear the extraordinary performance Mr. Thomas led at Carnegie. The Introduction to Part I sounded newly suspenseful and dangerous, especially during the more subdued passages. When the Dance of the Adolescent Girls broke out, Mr. Thomas at first kept the lid on the pounding chords and dark, folk-line tunes. We had a long buildup ahead of us, and Mr. Thomas, with savvy theatrical instincts, wanted to take us there step by step. So when the savage, frenzied episodes came, the music sounded all the more harrowing. The entire performance was riveting, and elicited an exuberant ovation from the audience.

Mr. Thomas’s Perspectives series is off to a great start.


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