San Francisco Ballet orchestra veteran double-bassist Shinji Eshima, who played the orgiastic score of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" four times over a weekend in February, calls it "still wondrous, thrilling ... and terrifying."
Once regarded as scandalous, the magnificent piece is on this week's San Francisco Symphony program. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas — who has devoted an entire "Keeping Score" educational program to "The Rite of Spring" — is conducting, celebrating the work's centennial.
When Stravinsky's score was performed in Paris to Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography 100 years ago, the audience experienced only the terrifying part of the savage score about a ritual in which a young girl is chosen to be sacrificed. Disturbed by rhythms and sonorities they had never heard before, many listeners shouted down the musicians and exchanged blows with those who came to the defense of the performance. That 1913 event became the most infamous audience riot in the history of music.
Today, "Rite" is performed everywhere. The symphony presentation follows San Francisco Ballet's 2013 premiere of Yuri Possokhov's ballet set to the piece, and Mark Morris Dance Troupe premiering Morris' "Rite" at Cal Performances last week.
MTT, who as a teen met Stravinsky in Los Angeles (and wore down his treasured vinyl recording of the work), describes the piece's once-shocking, still powerful finale: "The music becomes louder, more compacted, it seems faster. And then it goes totally over the edge. It's just a moment of quivering silence. And then, the instant that Stravinsky imagined from the beginning. The moment when the sacrificial maiden's neck would snap and the whole community would lift her up to the sky in triumph."
How can music represent such a violent moment? Stravinsky created a wild sound consisting of shrieking piccolos and strings on the upbeat, with a touch of the South American scraper, the guiro, and then on the downbeat, an immense crash by brass and percussion.
Eshima describes his view from inside the orchestra: "It is a marvel to play, surrounded by colors and the sheer joy of pure rhythm. One feels like you are dancing inside while playing and, afterward, you're exhausted and feel as if you needed a cigarette."
"The Rite of Spring" is paired with varied offerings in two concerts this week. On Wednesday and Thursday, the program also includes Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D and "Agon." On Friday and Saturday, the program features traditional Russian folk songs and Stravinsky's "Les Noces."
IF YOU GOS.F. Symphony Stravinsky concerts
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, 6:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $22 to $156
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Note: A rehearsal at 10 a.m. Wednesday is open to the public. Tickets are $22 to $40.