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Stravinsky Inspires Symphony
Thomas delivers unusual tribute
Allan Ulrich, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, February 9, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Carnegie Hall will get some of the best that the San Francisco Symphony has to offer when the orchestra tours to New York two weeks hence. Manhattan will also get most of the best.

For the first time, 145 members of Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus -- singing in four languages -- will make the transcontinental trek for programs devoted to Mahler and Stravinsky. It was the latter who monopolized Wednesday evening's subscription concert in Davies Symphony Hall under music director Michael Tilson Thomas, some of his more inspired conducting of the season.

A gala event of sorts, this was not a preview so much as the main event, and a brave one, too. A pair of the composer's landmark choral works, "Les Noces" (The Wedding) and "Symphony of Psalms" (replacing the originally scheduled "Agon"), followed a radiant reprise of the 1934 melodrama "Persephone," introduced here in 1997 and subsequently recorded for RCA Red Seal by this team. These pieces span a crucial 17 years, a period in which Stravinsky consolidated the hold of neoclassicism on 20th century music.

Stravinsky, who never disappears from the repertoires of enlightened orchestras, figures prominently on the West Coast this year, the 30th anniversary of the composer's death (in April). On Feb. 22, the Los Angeles Philharmonic launches a three-week festival in the city where Stravinsky spent the last decades of his life, and that orchestra will tour here with two Stravinsky piano works on its March 13 concert.

Thomas, however, may have come up with the season's most unusual tribute -- the original 1917 version of "Les Noces," a jolting and wonderful discovery Wednesday. Audiences know these four "Russian Choreographic Scenes" in the version scored for four pianos and percussion, the instrumentation that served for Bronislava Nijinska's epochal 1923 ballet (once a staple at the Oakland Ballet).

This earlier version, edited after the composer's death by Ramiro Cortes and Robert Craft, deploys a far grander orchestra. It includes only one piano and a modest percussion battery, but adds harpsichord, cimbalom, two harps and eight strings, plus an enormous brass and woodwind complement. The results blunt the primitive, ritualistic, almost sepia quality of the familiar scoring and recall the exotic colors conjured by Stravinsky's teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.


It adds up to a sublime jangle. Brass fill in harmonies, flutes offer commentaries, bassoons slither around the scale, and instead of the bell tolling at the end to mark the consummation of the marriage, we hear harpsichord, triangles and harps, less insistent and more evocative than the standard version. The moment is magical; whatever "Les Noces" loses in propulsiveness, it acquires in sensuality.

Thomas' version also allowed his imported quartet of Slavic soloists to dominate. Soprano Elena Evseeva, mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdjuk, tenor Viktor Lutsjuk and bass Sergei Aleksashkin gave formidably authoritative performances (where do they grow these great voices?), while the Chorus struggled to get out the soft Russian consonants in tempo. Projecting a translation (by Marika Kuzma) rather than printing the text was a problematic innovation, more of the Symphony's multimedia pabulum for the hungry masses.


The screens remained in operation for "Symphony of Psalms," but this 1930 masterwork, one of the century's supreme statements of faith, reaches for more than mere verbal comprehension. The unique color (no high strings) and fragmentary psalm settings elicited a burnished response from the Chorus and an intense, magisterially balanced, gorgeously voiced reading from the podium.

The limpid lyricism of Stravinsky's setting of Andre Gide's mythological libretto for "Persephone" found Thomas savoring instrumental textures without neglecting the drama. Again, tenor Stuart Neill was the fervent if not always idiomatic Eumolpe. Again, Stephanie Cosserat projected the narration in elocutionary, if somewhat bland French. Again, members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Ragazzi, the Peninsula Boys Chorus, participated.

"Persephone," allusive, serene and understated, is a work for a special occasion. Wednesday's performance made it that.


SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The all-Stravinsky program repeats at 8 tonight and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall. 201 Van Ness.Tickets $15-$80. Call (415) 864- 6000, or go to

E-mail Allan Ulrich at

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page C6