Events & Tickets
A STRAVINSKY JOURNEY
New World Center
Michael Tilson Thomas celebrates one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, his mentor Igor Stravinsky. Step right up for the carnivalesque Petrushka as it delves into
a tale of puppets, ballerinas and more with Stravinsky’s signature flair and jaunting rhythms. After settling in Los Angeles, Stravinsky adopted the Hollywood sound of his new home in his Symphony in Three Movements. He wrote his final orchestral work, Variations, for friend and author Aldous Huxley.
Approx. Duration: 5 minutes
Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam
Approx. Duration: 20 minutes
Symphony in Three Movements
Andante – Interlude
Approx. Duration: 34 minutes
(1910-11; 1947 version)
The Shrovetide Fair
The Moor’s Room
The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening)
Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam
Approximate duration: 5 minutes
Nearly 60 years separated the first orchestral music by Igor Stravinsky, written while he was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov in Imperial Russia, and his last orchestral score, completed in his Hollywood home while movies like The Sound of Music filmed nearby. Reaching so many highpoints during those dizzying decades of change, it would have been understandable if Stravinsky had gotten stuck—as the colorful Russian folklorist who wrote The Firebird in 1910, or the sharp-elbowed modernist responsible for The Rite of Spring in 1913, or the suave neoclassicist who evolved from the whimsical ballet Pulcinella in 1920 to the thoroughly Mozartean opera The Rake’s Progress that debuted in 1951.
In the wake of that operatic triumph, during Stravinsky’s first return visit to Europe since before World War II, the elder statesman made a horrifying realization: Young composers had lost interest in him. You could call it a bruised ego, or an artist’s need for growth, but either way it spurred Stravinsky to reinvent himself yet again, embracing the serial (i.e. 12-tone) techniques that had grown out of the works of Schoenberg. In 1963 he was building a set of orchestral variations around those serial principles when he learned of the death of his good friend Aldous Huxley, the British author of Brave New World who had also decamped to Southern California. Huxley died on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, and that other great loss led Stravinsky to pause his Variations to write a tribute to the fallen president. When he returned to his work-in-progress, he added the subtitle Aldous Huxley in Memoriam as a tribute, even if it did not reshape his original plan for the music.
Like most everything Stravinsky had written since World War I, the musical textures of the Variations are as dry and combustible as kindling, changing directions capriciously and advancing arguments through strings of short, fragmented gestures. Even though this wasn’t born as ballet music, Stravinsky’s longtime collaborator George Balanchine recognized the dancing qualities that were always latent in this composer’s orchestral works, leading him to use it as the score for Variations, choreographed in 1966 for The New York City Ballet.
Symphony in Three Movements
Approximate duration: 20 minutes
The ravages of World War II and complications in international copyright law separated Stravinsky, newly settled in Los Angeles, from his old-world income sources. This was a period when he wrote incongruous works of “popular” music, including a polka for the elephants of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Like so many other expatriate composers in California, he also considered scoring films, but none of those projects came to fruition. Stravinsky claimed that portions of his Symphony in Three Movements began as sketches for film music, but over the course of three years the work grew into a stark and powerful orchestral work, approaching a level of turbulence not heard in Stravinsky’s music since The Rite of Spring 30 years earlier.
Stravinsky actually had The Rite of Spring back on his desk in 1943 to undertake a revision of the climactic Sacrificial Dance, an excerpt that makes heavy use of the same minor-third interval that also dominates the opening movement of the Symphony in Three Movements. The fractured rhythms and transparent layers resemble Stravinsky’s other neoclassical works from that time, including the Symphony in C, but this wartime work strips out the sunny triads and breezy melodies that might otherwise lighten the mood or create some ironic distance.
After the piano takes a leading role in the first movement, the harp rises to the foreground for the Andante middle movement. This more placid music had its origins in an abandoned film score meant to underscore an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Beginning without a pause, the third movement opens with a grotesque march that Stravinsky acknowledged as “a musical reaction to the newsreels and documentaries that I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers.” The piano and harp both return for prominent solos, helping to initiate a fugue and a final arrival that marks Stravinsky’s “exuberance in the Allied triumph.”
(1910-11; 1947 version)
Approximate duration: 34 minutes
After the smash success of The Firebird in 1910, Stravinsky proposed creating another over-the-top score for the Ballets Russes, this one based on prehistoric pagan sacrifice, an idea that would soon become The Rite of Spring. But first, as he later recorded in his autobiography, “I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part.” The music he conceived brought to mind “a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi.”
When Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russes, visited Stravinsky in Switzerland, he heard those first sketches and, as Stravinsky remembered it, “He was so much pleased with it that he would not leave it alone and began persuading me to develop the theme of the puppet’s sufferings and make it into a whole ballet.” Together they shaped a plot: “The fair, with its crowd, its booths, the little traditional theater, the character of the magician, with all his tricks; and the coming to life of the dolls—Petrushka, his rival and the dancer—and their love tragedy, which ends with Petrushka’s death.”
Petrushka debuted in Paris on 1911, and its intoxicating synthesis of music, sets, costumes and choreography (with the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role) exemplified everything that made the Ballet Russes a modern sensation. The version of Petrushka heard here features a slightly reduced orchestration that Stravinsky prepared in 1947, which had the practical effect of renewing his copyrights and royalties after his immigration to the United States.
The outer scenes of Petrushka transpire in the fairgrounds, while the two central episodes occur in the cells of Petrushka and the Moor, rivals for the affection of the Ballerina—three puppets magically animated and imbued with human emotions. In the final scene, the Moor kills Petrushka, and the ballet ends with the ghost of Petrushka taunting the magician who created him.
A signature sound in the ballet is the superimposition of two clashing triads, their root notes separated by the pungent interval of an augmented fourth. This ambiguous “Petrushka” chord appears near the beginning of the second tableau: Listen for the rising triads from two clarinets, starting a few measures after the barrage from a military drum. The bitonal sound mirrors the predicament of Petrushka, who exists in two different worlds (human and puppet) and belongs in neither.
-- © 2020 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
Michael Tilson Thomas is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy; Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony; and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these posts, he maintains an active presence guest conducting with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Tilson Thomas is the third generation of his family to follow an artistic career. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America. His father, Ted Thomas, was a producer in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television. His mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures.
Mr. Tilson Thomas began his formal studies at the University of Southern California, where he studied piano with John Crown, and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. At age 19 he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. During this same period, he was the pianist and conductor in master classes of Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz and worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts.
In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1974. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Mr. Tilson Thomas is a two-time Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist, curating and conducting series at the hall from 2003 to 2005 and from 2018 to 2019. In the most recent series, he led Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America both at the hall and on tour in Asia, opened the Carnegie Hall season over two evenings with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted two programs with the Vienna Philharmonic and finished with a pair of concerts leading the New World Symphony.
A winner of eleven Grammy Awards, Mr. Tilson Thomas appears on more than 120 recordings. His discography includes The Mahler Project, a collection of the composer’s complete symphonies and works for voice and orchestra performed with the San Francisco Symphony, in addition to pioneering recordings of music by Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. His recordings span repertoire from Bach and Beethoven to Debussy and Stravinsky, and from Sarah Vaughan to Metallica.
His television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS’s Great Performances. With the San Francisco Symphony, he created a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, and radio programs. He received a Peabody Award for his SFS Media radio series The MTT Files.
Mr. Tilson Thomas’s compositions are published by G. Schirmer. In 1991, he and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of his work From the Diary of Anne Frank, which was commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. In August 1995, he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Shówa/Shoáh, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. His vocal music includes settings of poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, which were premiered by Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming, respectively. In 2016, Yuja Wang premiered his piano piece You Come Here Often?.
Mr. Tilson Thomas' song cycle Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem, was premiered in 2016 by the New World Symphony, with Measha Brueggergosman as soloist. In 2019 the piece was recorded for Medici.tv at the New World Center and given its New York premiere as part of Mr. Tilson Thomas’s second Carnegie Hall Perspectives series. His first Perspectives series also featured performances of his own compositions, including Island Music for four marimbas and percussion; Notturno for solo flute and strings, featuring soloist Paula Robison; and new settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. In 2020, he led the San Francisco Symphony in the world premiere of his six-part song cycle Meditations on Rilke, and he subsequently conducted the work at the Cleveland Orchestra. Additional compositions include Street Song for brass instruments; Agnegram, an overture for orchestra; and Urban Legend, a concerto for contrabassoon that was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. In June 2020, SFS Media released an album of works composed by Mr. Tilson Thomas, featuring live concert recordings of From the Diary of Anne Frank, narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and Meditations on Rilke, sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny.
Mr. Tilson Thomas is an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was Musical America’s Musician of the Year and Conductor of the Year, was Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. He has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, has been inducted into the California Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a 2019 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.