A Rare Side-by-Side of a Thrilling Stravinsky

Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

Carnegie Hall opened its new season on Wednesday with a determinedly festive gala program featuring Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Guest stars Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald sang opera and musical theater favorites wonderfully, and there was Gershwin galore, including a stylish account of “An American in Paris.”

But the real start of the season, for me, came the next night when Mr. Thomas returned with his San Francisco players for a Stravinsky program. Mr. Thomas is presenting a Perspectives series at Carnegie throughout the season, and if Thursday’s program did not look that adventurous on paper, bracketed by two staples, the mix of pieces was telling and the performances were thrilling.

He opened with “Petrouchka” and ended with “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”). In between, Mr. Thomas led the 1931 Violin Concerto. It might have seemed curious to include this astringent Neo-Classical score alongside the teeming “Petrouchka” and still-shocking “Sacre.” But with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, the performance emphasized the rhythmically jagged and harmonically crunchy elements of the music in a way that made the concerto seem radical on its own terms.

Though the concerto doesn’t turn up on orchestra programs that often, it’s a staple of the New York City Ballet (including this season), one of many Stravinsky scores that George Balanchine choreographed. On Thursday night, by coincidence, the New York Philharmonic also performed the concerto, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist, on Jaap van Zweden’s latest program as the orchestra’s music director. I caught the second performance on Friday, a rare chance to hear contrasting, and equally exciting, accounts of an elusive score.

The opening Toccata nods to the heritage of that Baroque-era form, which typically involves lively tempos and rapid-fire runs. Stravinsky’s toccata unfolds in animated strands, full of spiraling figures for the violin and bursts of dancing chords. But the music is continuously fractured and disrupted. Playing with rhythmic bite and a touch of impishness, Mr. Kavakos made it seem like Stravinsky had intriguingly reassembled the broken pieces of a toccata in the wrong order. Mr. Kavakos captured the ambiguity of the mellow Aria I movement, which shifts between nervously skittish and melodically yearning passages. Aria II finally gives the soloist a chance to spin out long lyrical phrases, though they wander unpredictably. Playing with emphatic brio and earthy tone, Mr. Kavakos captured the manic energy of the discombobulating Capriccio finale.
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