Stravinsky’ 1910 ballet “Firebird” served to announce his brash ascendance onto the world stage. The 1919 suite he fashioned for smaller orchestra while cutting over 20 minutes of music from the original was the central piece of Stilian Kirov’s conducting debut with the West Virginia Symphony Saturday night at the Clay Center.
Kirov, music director of the Bakersfield (California) Symphony and Symphony in C (New Jersey) became the third candidate to audition to be Grant Cooper’s replacement as music director.
Few pieces show a composer’s search to find his style as well as Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” his first major work. For every bit of Debussy, Wagner or Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky borrowed, one hears a modernist urge to the simultaneous mixtures of short and sustained notes on the same line, bold changes of meter, sudden shifts of phrases and layered textures that became so important to the composer’s later, great neoclassical compositions from 1920 to 1951.
“The Firebird” sounds best when conductors emphasize those modernist urges while hold the piece’s last-gasp-of-Romanticism in check.
Kirov did this adroitly from the sinister quiet basses and cellos of the opening, where all play legato while two basses pluck the same notes, to the brassy tumult of the finale’s pounding asymmetrical seven-beat dance rhythms. Textures, even at their busiest, were clean but dazzling. In the many solos, including lengthy ones played ably by bassoonist Klif Hodgkyn and hornist Marsha Palmer, Kirov gave abundant expressive space to the players.
Violinist Martin Chalifour, whose serves as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, joined the orchestra as soloist in Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77. Chalifour’s playing was as cerebral as it was skilled with each phrase shaped with care and displayed with ample tone. If the complexities of Brahms’ writing never allow the fiery bludgeoning that other concertos can handle, Chalifour did not need that anyway. Even at the music’s most intense moments his sound and precision carried through with poise.
In the quieter moments he was even better, cool and insightful. Oboist Lorraine Dorsey played beautifully in the long solo at the start of the slow movement.
Kirov did not fashion a perfect accompaniment as little rhythmic tensions occurred in the first movement when the orchestra did not quite align with the soloist. He got better as the piece progressed though. The slow movement was neatly expressive, while the finale was rhythmically spry and the orchestra was spot on with Chalifour.
Kirov had a nifty seating plan for the strings in Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” The piece is for strings only, with the strings divided into a string quartet plus two orchestras. Kirov placed the smaller orchestra on risers at the back of the stage while the rest of the strings occupied their usual chairs. This created an antiphonal sound that contrasted the larger, closer body with the more distant, smaller group. The contrast of echoing effects was striking. Kirov’s conducting shaped the music intelligently.
Borodin’ Overture to “Prince Igor” had a lovely solo by hornist Palmer, pleasing interplay among the woodwinds and crisp fanfares from the tuba, trombones and horns. Kirov, who drew ingratiating playing from the strings throughout the evening, made solid balances.
The audience drew Kirov back for a couple of extended curtain calls with scattered shouts of acclaim.