Stravinsky's 'Rite' reveals it has much more spring in its step

Gil Shaham
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

Critic's Notebook: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony add a new dimension to the piece, the celebration of which has yet to run its course.

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday was the last day of the spring of "The Rite of Spring." By now everyone and his or her brother has seemingly found a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the riotous Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's famed ballet. With so many such rites — including Mark Morris' intriguing new choreography that premiered in Berkeley last week — you might expect the "Rite" to have finally run its course.

Not yet.

Spring, in fact, ended with a revelatory performance of Stravinsky's score Thursday afternoon here at Davies Hall, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Friday then brought Midsummer Day revelations from London. In the new issue of the Times Literary Supplement, conductor Robert Craft notes that while Stravinsky may have been known for his "hyper-active heterosexual philandering," he also had an affair with a young composer, Maurice Delage, that helped shaped some aspects of the "Rite."

What is particularly fascinating about these revelations is that both have their source in Stravinsky's Los Angeles years. Tilson Thomas, who is 68 and grew up in L.A., is the last active major conductor to have had a connection with the composer. He worked with Stravinsky at the Monday Evening Concerts. The 89-year-old Craft was Stravinsky's assistant in Los Angeles and later in New York. The two were inseparable.

Steven Walsh states in his two-volume Stravinsky biography that Stravinsky had been on friendly but not intimate terms with members of a group of closeted gay composers in Paris, which included Ravel. But Craft's disclosure now brings new perspectives. In his TLS remarks, he reveals that Delage stimulated Stravinsky's interest in the Japanese language, something that subtly found its way into the composition of the ballet's metrically revolutionary "Sacrificial Dance." He also offers another observation that illuminates a direct relationship between the Craft and Tilson Thomas connection to Stravinsky in L.A. and the San Francisco Symphony concert.

In the TLS, he points out a little-noticed detail in the "Rite" — a quotation from the 16th-century Dutch composer Adrian Willaert in "The Dance of the Earth." While in L.A., Stravinsky became increasingly fascinated with early music, especially what he heard programmed at the Monday Evening Concerts. Craft, in fact, conducted a work by Willaert at a 1954 MEC concert held in memory of the poet Dylan Thomas in 1954, in which Stravinsky's "In Memoriam" was premiered.

It was around this time Stravinsky began his ballet "Agon," and that was the piece that Tilson Thomas used to begin Thursday's program. And to introduce it, he explained to the audience that the score was really a dozen little souvenirs from the Monday Evening Concerts, in which the likes of Craft and Tilson Thomas offered Baroque music, the early 20th-century works of Webern and the latest new from Boulez in Paris. A musical omnivore, Stravinsky mixed it all up, as if diced by what Tilson Thomas called "a magnificent Cuisinart."

The performance was brilliant. The ballet is not often played. It is difficult, spiky music, some of it written with the 12-tone technique, and the score easily loses its fizz when played poorly. Tilson Thomas let details shine. He clarified rhythms and made them dance. Old and new music popped out like sparks from burning logs. Instrumental colors were dazzling.

The program was the first of a small two-part San Francisco Symphony Stravinsky festival meant to examine the "Rite" from different sides. Thursday's matinee was the formal Stravinsky (Friday and Saturday turn to the composer's Russian roots); the neo-Classical Violin Concerto followed "Agon." Gil Shaham was the soloist, and however structured like a Baroque concerto this 1931 work may be, Shaham all but danced it, exuberantly prancing about the stage and playing splendidly.

The "Rite" is a Tilson Thomas specialty, and the distinguishing feature of this performance was its completeness. Valery Gergiev has supplied a more Russian "Rite"; Esa-Pekka Salonen, a more rhythmically astonishing one; Pierre Boulez, a more transparent one. But Tilson Thomas' conveyed all of those aspects and more, not the least being a riveting eroticism with alluring spiritualism the other of the "Rite" coin.

There was a sense of freedom in individual players' solos, but they just as effectively conveyed the crushing force of unity that makes a great performance of the "Rite" such an overwhelming experience. The orchestral sound was lush and intensely beautiful.

The "Rite" is not going away anytime soon. The Los Angeles Philharmonic offers it at the Hollywood Bowl next month, led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. (Tilson Thomas opens the Bowl season July 9 with Mahler's Second Symphony and July 11 with Shaham and Sibelius' Violin Concerto). In New York, the Bard College Music Festival will be devoted to Stravinsky and his world.

But as a kind of summation of the world that Stravinsky's ballet score encompasses, Tilson Thomas' was a "Rite" to be remembered, which is saying something this "Rite"-besotted year.