Published Friday, Feb. 9, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
A zesty all-Stravinsky program
S.F. SYMPHONY TAKES ON A CHALLENGING SET OF WORKS
BY LESLEY VALDES
Igor Stravinsky composed ``Les Noces'' in 1917, and it still sizzles like a pan of bacon.
Anticipating the performances (continuing tonight and Saturday) by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus under Michael Tilson Thomas, the image that sprang to mind was Irish, not Russian: those kidneys steaming over a searing flame for Leopold Bloom's breakfast in James Joyce's ``Ulysses.'' ``Les Noces'' does much the same thing Joyce did; it's a dazzling stream-of-consciousness account, in this case, of a day in the life of Russian peasants preparing for a wedding.
The composer shows us the nervous bride, egging on companions to finish plaiting her hair and add the red ribbons; the pirogi-makers hustling in the kitchen; the drunken father; the lusty groom and his friends. And of course, everybody's talking -- or singing -- at once.
Stravinsky considered this score (also known as ``Svadebka'' or ``The Wedding'') so colloquial, so particular to his homeland, that only a Russian could completely understand it. But ``Les Noces'' so vividly depicts the pandemonium surrounding the nuptials that anyone can relate. In fact, it's a lot easier to understand than the Joyce novel. And that's what inevitably happens with top-drawer interpretations of Stravinsky.
Thank goodness adventurous conductors still take from the shelf works such as his ``Symphony of Psalms,'' also heard in this concert, one of two challenging programs the orchestra and chorus will take to Carnegie Hall on Feb. 21-22 and other East Coast destinations. Their dedication shows us why the rhythmic urgencies of its oddly spaced triads and suspended ``Allelulias'' make the ``Symphony'' one of the great choral scores of the last century.
Tilson Thomas and other brave conductors (the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen soon will begin his own Stravinsky Festival) revive even pieces such as ``Persephone,'' whose pleasures are the inverse of the famous ``Rite of Spring.'' (``Persephone'' and ``The Rite of Spring'' are included on last year's Stravinsky CD set from the San Francisco Symphony, which won three Grammys.)
``Persephone,'' for tenor, narrator, chorus and orchestra, is long; it takes up the first half of the weekend's programs. It concerns the mythological character whose descent into the underworld put a stop to spring and created winter. Where ``Rite of Spring'' is all external ritual and pounding emotion, ``Persephone'' is mostly introspective lyricism, handled beautifully by the adult chorus, augmented with the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the boys of Ragazzi. As she does on the symphony's recording, actor Stephanie Cosserat declaims the French text by André Gide. Tenor Stuart Neill brings to the part bold conviction but occasional strain.
Conductors need chutzpah and humility to mount an all-Stravinsky program. They also need committed singers such as those in the 150-member Symphony Chorus, which clearly knows the meaning of the words in the French, Russian and Latin texts. Articulation is its forte; leader Vance George has taught his dedicated singers how to color vowels and how to snarl, even bite, their consonants.
Not everything has come together yet. Balances among choristers, instrumentalists and soloists were still working themselves out on Wednesday, opening night. But after another performance or two, the program bodes well.
``Les Noces'' is being done in its rarely performed 1919 version, not the familiar 1923 orchestration (which requires four grand pianos, bells and two harps). The original is more subtle and timbrally refined. The dominant effect is of high-pitched keening. In it, soprano Elena Evseeva made much of her solos; Nadezhda Serdjuk was the attractive mezzo-soprano; Viktor Lutsjuk took the tenor part; and Sergei Aleksashkin sang the animated bass solos.
The chorus serves, in effect, as soloist through the trenchant, haunting ``Symphony of Psalms,'' which uses every instrument but clarinets and strings to accompany the choral praises from Psalms 39, 40 and 150, sung in Latin.
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director; Stuart Neill, tenor; Stephanie Cosserat, narrator; With the San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Performing: ``Agon,'' ``Les Noces'' and ``Persephone,'' all by Stravinsky
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 tonight-Saturday
Call: (415) 864-6000
EYE, the weekend entertainment guide, is published each Friday by the San Jose Mercury News,
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