The Symphony's Stravinsky
With A Different Les Noces

By Michelle Dulak

Michael Tilson Thomas has long been associated with the music of Stravinsky, and his recordings of the last few years have been a positive feast for Stravinsky-philes — not only several of the early ballets with the San Francisco Symphony, but other works (ironically, works written in America) with the London Symphony. Wednesday night's concert at Davies Symphony Hall showcased music that the San Francisco Symphony will be taking on its pending tour.

The irresistible attraction for lovers of Stravinsky was the performance of Svadebka (Les noces, or "The Wedding"), in a chamber-orchestra version dating from 1917. At least one commentator has incautiously called this the "original version" of Svadebka. In fact, as the program notes make clear, Stravinsky never completed this orchestration, and the first performances of it (as edited or supplemented by Ramiro Cortes and Robert Craft) were given only after his death. What was played in San Francisco was, at most, a conjectural adumbration of the composer's first thoughts.

That said, the "orchestration" was fascinating. The orchestra itself was a motley collection: a very few strings (three violins, two each of violas and cellos, a single bass, a pair of harps) set against a very large wind and brass complement and an array of percussive instruments — not just piano and percussion, but harpsichord and cimbalom (large dulcimer) as well.

Tangy Timbres A Constant Pleasure

So, gone was the pitilessly clear, objective music of the familiar four-pianos-and-percussion version. In its place was something more colorful and more subtle, but not necessarily always better. The tangy timbres were a constant pleasure, even if some of the participants could barely be heard. (The harpsichord was completely inaudible. Why didn't the Symphony get a "period instrument," meaning the sort of harpsichord that would've been played ca. 1917 — steel-framed and built like a tank?)

Stravinsky (or his posthumous arrangers) uses the winds and brass sparingly, but at times with a pungency that threw my mind right back to Le sacre du printemps. The trick of putting winds (say, flute and bass clarinet) two octaves apart on the same line, familiar from other early Stravinsky works, turns up here and works beautifully. The varied and colorful "percussive-instrument" contingent, though not a match for the usual four pianos in volume, tickled my ear. (The tricky cimbalom part was played deftly by Jay Stebley, the Bay Area's only master of this difficult instrument.)

The ending, though, was a disappointment. Triangle, harps, and piano would make a good substitute for the bells of the familiar version at the ending — if they were all in tune with one another, which they weren't. And since none of the instruments was of the kind that you can tune during a performance, the players were obliged to keep playing the same out-of-tune unison B until the piece was over. (Worse, the winds wrapped the piece up by coming in at a B yet higher than any of the preceding team's.)

Chorus Sailing Through Thickets

As for the singing, the chorus, though maybe too large for the work, was splendidly drilled. They sailed through the thickets of pesky Russian consonants and intricate rhythms as though they were no particular problem. The Slavic quartet of soloists, if anything, struggled more. They were all fine voices (especially soprano Elena Evseeva, whose rich, secure tone — all the way up to high B — was a delight). But they fell short of the crisp and alert rhythmic sense of the orchestra and chorus. A visibly irritated Tilson Thomas more than once had to intervene to keep them on course.

The program notes, incidentally, referred to a surtitled translation by Marika Kuzma of UC Berkeley, which was to contain "occasional Russian transliterations" to "help [the listeners] orient [themselves] in the musical torrent." Whether what was presented on the Supertitle screen was Kuzma's work, I don't know. But there were no "transliterations" beyond the names of the protagonists.

Perséphone, which occupied the first half, is one of those Stravinsky works that fell through the cracks — a piece so little known that the Berkeley Symphony could claim a "Berkeley premiere" only two or three years after the University Symphony at UC Berkeley had presented the work, complete with dance and (partial) staging, at Zellerbach Hall. It's not all that difficult to understand the neglect. Perséphone is beautiful though rather cold, lyrical but aloof, as though all its songs were being sung from a great distance. The story, of Demeter's daughter Persephone entering the underworld and eventually re-emerging for part of each year, might have been made intensely dramatic. (In fact it's very nearly the same as the story of Orpheus, from which so many operas have been made.) But Stravinsky avoids drama, and there is a ritual quality in the piece's many studied scenes.

Ethereally Beautiful

Tilson Thomas and the Symphony, with the same soloists and choruses, recorded Perséphone in 1997. Orchestra and chorus alike were fine (and the children's choruses were ethereally beautiful in their few moments). Tenor Stuart Neill, who sang the tenor part on the 1997 recording, was strong but strenuous on Wednesday night. (He has every excuse, for the part is cruelly high.) Stephanie Cosserat, also reprising her role from the recording, narrated. It is not her fault if, over music, recited French can't help but sound frou-frou to an American audience.

As for the Symphony of Psalms, I couldn't help but regret that this familiar work had replaced the originally scheduled Agon. But the performance was very fine — incisive in the choir (surely they didn't learn the piece on two weeks' notice?) and pungent in the winds. If it had any failing, it was one of nerve, in the last movement — the slow, steady tread of the last section wasn't quite slow and steady enough for my taste. But it was affecting, for all that. The final "Alleluias" were serene, the last C major chord long and exalted and gloriously in tune.

(Michelle Dulak is a violinist and violist who has written about music for "Strings," "Stagebill," "Early Music America" and The New York Times.)

©2001 Michelle Dulak, all rights reserved

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