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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Jun 27, 2018

San Francisco Symphony Celebrates Stravinsky

A group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet “The Rite of Spring,” showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. 

There’s a lot wrapped up in the San Francisco Symphony’s two-week Stravinsky Festival this September. The Russian composer is a touchstone for Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who has made Stravinsky’s works a core part of the orchestra’s repertory over the past 23 seasons.

Running from Sept. 21-30 and conducted by Tilson Thomas , the festival will revolve around three of Stravinsky’s monumental ballet scores: “The Firebird,” “Petrushka” and “Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring.)” Each is a defining work of the composer’s output, though “The Rite” is something more: “It redefined what music could be, much as Beethoven’s “Eroica” had done a century before,” Tilson Thomas has said. The hammer-blow rhythms of its climactic “Sacrificial Dance,” he added, are “some of the most revolutionary notes in the whole history of music.”

Tilson Thomas learned Igor Stravinsky’s music from the inside out.

As a young musician in Los Angeles, he got to know the Russian, who lived out his last 25 years in West Hollywood, a stone’s throw from Sunset Strip. Sitting at the piano or singing certain phrases from his works, Stravinsky showed Tilson Thomas that he “wanted his music to be played in a very clear, inflected way, a very–as they say in the dance world--`turned out’ sort of way, very gestural.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, the SF Symphony, and Stravinsky. (Credit L to R: Kristen Loken, Public Domain)

September’s festival will accentuate Stravinsky’s connection to the dance world. The three great ballet works were premiered in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: “The Firebird” in 1910, when Stravinsky was only 28 and largely untested as a composer; “Petrushka” in 1911; and “The Rite of Spring” in 1913.

As a way of illuminating the two musical programs at Davies Symphony Hall, the festival will include lectures, Prelude Series talks, original digital content, and engaging archival lobby exhibits.

The first program (Sept. 17-23) will bring additional focus to Stravinsky’s dance works, starting with “Perséphone,” inspired by the queen of the underworld of Greek mythology.

Rarely performed, “Perséphone” was composed in 1934 to a libretto by André Gide and has been choreographed through the decades by the likes of Ida Rubinstein and George Balanchine. The San Francisco Symphony performances will feature a narrator, solo singers, including tenor Nicholas Phan, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

“Persephone” will share the program with “The Firebird,” a far more familiar piece. Tilson Thomas will conduct the complete ballet score, with all its blazing colors.

The second program (Sept. 24-30) opens with “Petrushka,” a charmed work that tells the tale of three puppets, their love affairs and jealousies. The program—which Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra will take to Carnegie Hall in October as part of the conductor’s season-long Perspectives series there—also includes Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Leonidas Kavakos, and concludes with “The Rite of Spring.”

Tilson Thomas will step down as music director at the end of the 2019-2020 season, his 25th in San Francisco. The Stravinsky Festival is just one of the events that will celebrate the repertoire he has developed with the orchestra over the past quarter-century.

He expects the September performances of “The Rite of Spring” to be eerie, ferocious, erotic, earthy, violent—all the qualities that shocked the opening night audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913, causing a near riot.

The piece “isn’t shocking anymore, but it is thrilling,” he said. More than a century “after its scandalous premiere, it still has that edgy, out-of-control feeling that makes it as exhilarating and liberating as music can be.”

—Richard Scheinin