San Francisco Symphony’s “The Rite of Spring”

The wonders of Spring

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has often been named one of the musical works that
defined and separated the Romantic era of the 19th century from the Modernist era of the 20th century. Certainly it transformed classical dance as it was known in Europe at the time, and since then almost every noted choreographer of the 20th century—from Nijinsky to Béjart, from Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton to Pina Bausch—has taken a crack at setting its wildly shifting rhythms and powerful polytonal harmonies.

In the past year the Canadian-based company led by Marie Chouinard presented its own exotic and fanciful setting of the Rite of Spring. There seems no end to the possibilities of choreography that this work inspires, but Stravinsky’s seminal work has gone on to dwell equally easily in the concert hall.

This past weekend Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Le Sacre du printemps as the final piece in an exceptionally pleasing concert that also included work by Poulenc, Villa Lobos and Ravel.

The Rite of Spring marked a dividing moment in my childhood as well. It was the piece that made me realize that there was a huge split between my brother and I on one side and our parents on another. Eager to hear the music that our older brother got from a kind of record-of-the-month club, my brother and I would crank up the volume on the old phonograph and listen to whatever release—usually from the NY Phil—had been sent our way.

For the most part everything was acceptable, until the day those crashing, insistent and exotic rhythms blasted through the house. “Turn that down!” our mother yelled, “It’s so discordant.”

She won, of course. But the line had been drawn.

So it is always with great love and unease that I hear Le Sacre, and I’ve heard it a lot. The opening remains my favorite, with its sinuous bassoon solo rising up through the short sensuous, wheezing, sighing fragments that the rest of the instruments create, sounding as if the every living creature and even the planet itself were creaking into existence. The music is so primal, so elemental—like the crack of cornstalks rising in a field, or the aches in the joints of growing children.

Yuja Wang

Wonders at the keyboard

The other jewel in this concert was the dazzling young pianist Yuja Wang, who opened the concert sharing the keyboard with Michael Tilson Thomas in Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands. A lively three-part piece that requires both vigorous and split-second timing on the part of the players, which both pianists provided even though shifting places during the first and second parts, when Yuja took over the upper part of the keyboard. The sonata ends with a witty little flourish.

The Poulenc was followed by Stravinsky’s charming Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, a masterpiece of interaction between orchestra and pianist. But the piece that was most astonishing was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand, a brilliant composition that requires the pianist to move not only with speed across the keyboard but also with an emphatic equilibrium that allows the listener to believe that the pianist is playing with both hands—so rich and varied are the sounds created by the pianist’s attack and movement. The orchestral accompaniment uplifts the work with its contrasting and thickly textured episodes; passages similar to Bolero decorate the middle section briefly. The piano has moments of jazz like phrases. It’s just one terrific piece of music, and Yuja Wang remained uniformly stunning throughout—punchy and vibrant, just grand!

The other short piece on the program was Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, for String Orchestra, a lush and gorgeously tropical sounding piece.

—Jaime Robles

Photo of Yuja Wang by Felix Broede. Courtesy Deutsche grammophon.