Once again Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) made it clear that the most important grounds for celebration in this Centennial Season lie the impeccable qualities of their absolutely stunning sonorities. This case was made most solidly in the second half of the program, devoted entirely to the complete score that Igor Stravinsky composed for the ballet “Petrushka” in the 1947 revision of the original 1911 score. MTT was clearly in his comfort zone with this music, as he seems to be with just about any composition by Stravinsky; but, while it is a relatively early composition, this score is a rather extraordinary piece of work.
However, its qualities can only really be appreciated in the context of the ballet for which it was composed. The choreographer for that ballet was Mikhail Fokine, who is the undisputed father of what we came to call “modern ballet” during the twentieth century. “Petrushka” was a grand vision for Fokine, an eternal triangle among puppets set on a single day of a Russian Shrovetide fair, that last great indulgence in pleasures of the flesh before the beginning of Lent. Without belittling the characters in his romantic triangle, Fokine chose to depict this fair as a massive tapestry of bustling human activity, a theatrical vision in which it is almost never the case that only one thing is happening on stage at any given time.
Much has been made of the attention Stravinsky gave to the representation of Fokine’s three principal characters, the clown Petrushka, the ballerina he loves, and the strong-armed weak-headed Moor she prefers. These days, when we are taught about this music, we are told about the “Petrushka chord” and the tritone-rich octatonic scale from which it was derived. However, effective character representation is a tradition among ballet composers going all the way back to Adolphe Adam. The “secret sauce” for Fokine’s choreography was the crowd; and Stravinsky was so attentive to capturing all of the details that Fokine wove into his staging that the score pages abound with text cues associating the musical passages with the actions on stage. The result is a score in which just as much is happening in the orchestra as on the stage and all with that same intricacy of an elegant piece of machinery.
So much occurs in a performance of this music that there has yet to be a recording technology capable of faithful reproduction. If you do not want to miss anything, you have to be there; and, if you have actually seen Fokine’s choreography (which has received several excellent revivals), you are more likely to appreciate just how much is going on in Stravinsky’s score. Last night MTT summoned from the SFS about as thorough an account of all of this activity as I have ever had the pleasure to experience. The evocation of the ballet was so effective that, at that wonderful moment when the entire ensemble superposes the dances of the nursemaids and the coachmen, I found myself looking up above the stage to see if that light snowfall that Fokine had added as a final touch would begin. The whole affair was a sonorous marvel, right up there with the celebrations of the SFS sound through the music of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten that launched this Centennial Season. Indeed, in the spirit of that opening Gala, the energy of “Petrushka” spilled over into an encore, Stravinsky’s 1944 “Scherzo à la russe,” which, in many ways, is a retrospective view of those early crowd scenes by a composer now more advanced in years.
Equally impressive was the SFS premiere of “Polaris,” subtitled “Voyage for Orchestra,” by Thomas Adès. Both the score and the film by Tal Rosner, which is an integral part of the performance, are products of an extended joint commission, including not only SFS but also the New World Symphony (which performed the world premiere), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon, the Barbican in London, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (whew!). Unlike “Petrushka,” this work is not based on a narrative scenario; and it is more an evocation of the voyage of its subtitle, rather than a depiction of one. The images of the film tend to alternate between the natural (primarily the sea and the shore), the human (two women on the shore), and abstract patterns. The music is highly textured, emerging through the same sorts of superposition techniques that Stravinsky had explored but with a totally different (and equally striking) sense of structural organization (which involves spatial deployment of the brass, as well as more conventional devices to segment the quarter-hour duration) and grammatical constraints.
What Adès most shares with Stravinsky is the capacity to flood the listener with more than can be apprehended in a single experience. This music definitely is a voyage, but there is so much abundance in the terrain that the initial listening experience becomes a matter of trying to establish some orientation without succumbing to sensory overload. In his pre-concert conversation with Scott Foglesong, Adès provided a bit of that orientation; but it was only a modest preparation for what would ensue once MTT took the podium. This is music that deserves multiple listenings, and I would like nothing better than for it to return next season, while memories of my first encounter have not entirely faded.
The one weak part of the evening was the opening with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 385 symphony in D major (“Haffner”). This symphony offers up some of Mozart’s richest instrumentation techniques. By all rights it should have provided an excellent example of how sonority meant as much to Mozart as melody, harmony, and counterpoint did. One could even appreciate that, in the presence of so many wind and brass instruments (as well as timpani), the string section should be larger than what is usually deployed for eighteenth-century compositions. However, the ensemble did not seem to come together with the same spirit that was summoned for both Stravinsky and Adès. The execution felt almost dutiful when it could have felt compelling. This was a pity, since this was the first Mozart composition to be performed in the Centennial Season; and it is a score that is as conducive to a large setting as to a more intimate one. Fortunately, there were no end of other blessings to count in this week’s subscription offering at Davies Symphony Hall.