NEW YORK – World-renowned violinist Leonidas Kavakos appeared with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the direction of Music Director and Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas on October 4 at the historic Carnegie Hall. The all- Stravinsky program offered musical thrills for the audience members, one of whom could not contain her enthusiasm, shouting out in her excitement at the end of two of the movements in the final piece, the iconic Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring).
The evening began with Stravinsky’s ballet Pétrouchka, originally composed in 1910-1911 and revised in 1947. The Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Stravinsky performed the revised version in its premiere at Carnegie Hall on December 29, 1953. The piece draws on Russian folk tunes to tell the dramatic story.
The program continued with the beautifully performed Violin Concerto in D Major (1931) with Kavakos on violin. With his impressive dexterity and technical skill, Kavakos conveys the emotion of the piece with subtlety and a power and intensity befitting the color and texture of Stravinsky’s work. Kavakos seamlessly glides between the demanding and shifting roles within the piece- chamber musician, duet partner, accompanist, demonstrating his virtuosity even in the pizzicato. The four movements enchanted the audience with the strong harmonies, syncopated rhythms, and lyrical moments.
The enthusiastic applause brought Kavakos back to the stage for a second curtain call and then led him to play a brilliant encore. His expert playing of Nikos Skalkottas’ Adagietto from Sonata for Solo Violin kept the audience riveted as the dulcet tone of Kavakos’ violin, a Stradivarius, filled the space. A Greek composer of 20th-century, Skalkottas was a member of the Second Viennese School and drew his influences from both the classical repertoire and the Greek tradition, not unlike Kavakos himself who grew up in a musical family in Greece.
Born and raised in Athens, Kavakos received the 2017 Léonie Sonning Music Prize, worth €100,000. The award is Denmark’s highest musical honor and has been given annually to an internationally-recognized composer, instrumentalist, conductor, or singer since 1959. Previous winners include Igor Stravinsky (1959), Leonard Bernstein (1965), Benjamin Britten (1968), and Anne-Sophie Mutter (2001).
By age 21, Kavakos had already won three major competitions: the Sibelius (1985), the Paganini (1988), and the Naumburg (1988). This success led to his making the first recording in history of the original Sibelius Violin Concerto (1903–04), which won the 1991 Gramophone Concerto of the Year Award.
He has since appeared regularly as a soloist with the Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles philharmonic orchestras; London, Boston, and Chicago symphony orchestras; and the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Philadelphia Orchestras. As a conductor Kavakos has worked with the Atlanta, Boston, London, and Vienna symphony orchestras; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; and Budapest Festival Orchestra. He used to play the “Abergavenny” Stradivarius violin of 1724, but has since acquired the 1734 “Willemotte” Stradivarius violin through London and New York dealership Florian Leonhard Fine Violins. The violin is named after 19th century collector Charles Willemotte of Antwerp.
Kavakos first performed with this particular Stradivarius in 1994. According to The Strad magazine, he said, “My very first acquaintance with the ‘Willemotte’ took place back in 1994 in New York City, during the wonderful exhibit of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violins at the Metropolitan Museum. I asked whether I could play a few notes on it. That was it! I will never forget that impression I had. All the sweetness of Stradivari sound was there, of course, but what amazed me was the combination of that with an impressive volume and, even more, the colour of depth and darkness, which one doesn’t always associate with Stradivari sound. ‘I really hope I can have a violin like this one day!’ I thought, and gave it back to the owner.”
Following the intermission, SFS performed the dynamic Le sacre du printemps with its savage rhythms, earthy melodies, and drama. It is arguably the most influential piece of 20th century music, allowing the SFS to shine in the intensity of each movement. The May 29, 1913 premiere of Le sacre du printemps led to a riot by the Paris audience that forever changed the course of music and cemented Stravinsky’s place in history. Stravinsky described the piece’s scenario for its concert premiere, as quoted in the program, “Le sacre du printemps is a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of creative power of spring.”
According to the program, Michael Tilson Thomas was 10 or 11 years old when he first saw Stravinsky conduct and then began attending rehearsals and performing in Stravinsky’s presence during his student days in Los Angeles. Tilson Thomas said in an interview with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s senior director and artistic adviser, “Hearing the music sung in the composer’s own voice is something that gives you a perspective that can come from no other, no matter how precisely it may be noted on the page.”
Kavakos will be returning to Carnegie Hall in 2019 with upcoming performances scheduled for February 6 and March 3.
More information is available online: carnegiehall.org.