April 17 - Celestial Mechanics

Wrote below for Commuter times, will also appear in June 2007 at 21st-centurymusic.com....

Hits and Misses from Misters Stravinsky and Takemitsu

Not everything Ludwig van Beethoven wrote was a masterpiece. And not everything Igor Stravinsky wrote was, either. That was clear enough on April 4, when Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a mixed program of Toru Takemitsu and Stravinsky at Davies Hall.

The great work was Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1930), in an interpretation that was fresh at every step. The taut first movement kept listeners breathless in a performance that took nothing for granted and coaxed new possibilities out of this familiar music, where the orchestra and the Symphony Chorus provided energy and polish.

The second movement, always in danger of being a mere academic angular affair, sustained a surprising sweetness; and the third underscored the ironic disconnect between the Latin text and the music, where seemingly clangorous passages are transformed into sustained moments of rapture. This was a beautiful, engaging reading among the best.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the realization of the composer's slightly earlier Apollo (Apollon Musagete) (1928 -- all three of the Stravinskys on the program were from the early years of his second, neoclassic period), except that it's simply not as strong a piece. For a number of us who have listened to this work for years, it has kept itself apart, in a cool, color-opaque world that seems skewed more to the classical than the neo. That fact that many still return to the piece, however, tellingly suggests that there is still much of merit here. But, for the money, the other two Balanchine ballets on classical subjects (Orpheus and Agon) offer greater rewards.

The third Stravinsky on the bill, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, occupies that middle ground as a minor masterpiece: a refined, problematic gem that is worthy of bringing out of storage every once in a while to admire. And there was much to admire in this sensitive, austere telling of a quixotic transitional essay (1920) that presaged the composer's transition from the Russian folkloric to the International thievoric.

The odd Stravinsky-out was Takemitsu's rhapsodic, one-movement clarinet concerto, Fantasma/Cantos, winningly argued by the eccentric and virtuosic Richard Stoltzman. This one-theme transfigured-all tome takes off, as much of early Stravinsky, from the coloristic sound-world of Claude Debussy's impressionism. But where the Russian adds rhythm, this Japanese master goes for super-diffuse and leisurely, as a walk around a garden. For this reviewer, a run around with the Takemitsu percussion concerto Cassiopeia is a more satisfying exercise.