Home | Discussions | Print Edition | Archives | Site Map | Home Delivery | Advertise | Help

Friday, February 9, 2001

S.F. Symphony Offers Rich, Revealing Look at Stravinsky
The composer's range of human experience is displayed in the program of major choral works.

By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic

     SAN FRANCISCO--Accept it or not, Igor Stravinsky has been crowned king of the century. He was the 20th century's most famous composer, and there can be no question that he dominates music at the beginning of the 21st.
     In America, in fact, the new year and new century is beginning with major Stravinsky festivals on both coasts as well as in the country's center. Kansas City, Mo., is in the midst of a citywide Stravinsky festival lasting nearly three months. Tonight in New York, the Dallas Symphony launches Carnegie Hall's three-month survey of Stravinsky's orchestral music that will involve a number of the world's greatest orchestras, conductors and soloists. And on Monday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic initiates a monthlong Stravinsky fest of concerts and panel discussions with a conversation about the composer by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars at LACMA (see accompanying box). In mid-March, the Philharmonic takes a weekend-sized edition of its festival to New York's Lincoln Center for a bit of competition with the Carnegie series.
     But, as is often the case these days, the San Francisco Symphony got there first. Two years ago, music director Michael Tilson Thomas devoted his orchestra's June Festival to an overview of Stravinsky as a look back at the old century. Last year, the orchestra's spectacular three-CD Stravinsky set won three Grammys (including best classical album). And Wednesday night at Davies Symphony Hall, the orchestra and Tilson Thomas offered an ambitious program of three major Stravinsky choral works--"Persephone," "Les Noces" and "Symphony of Psalms"--that the orchestra will take to Carnegie Hall on Feb. 21.
     These three works cover only 17 years, a small fraction of Stravinsky's long musical journey. But timeline history tells little about who Stravinsky was, about a composer whose strong personality showed through whatever style he happened to write in.
     Stravinsky took pains to cover those personal tracks. He devoted a series of lectures at Harvard to attempting to prove that music is an expression of itself and nothing more. Yet Wednesday's three choral works reveal an enormous range of the human experience and explain, I think more than his technical accomplishment, what makes Stravinsky such an important figure to us today.
     Even those who know Stravinsky's music well have little experience with the 1917 version of "Les Noces," which Tilson Thomas used. The commonly heard version of this score, with texts taken from traditional Russian wedding songs, is clangorous, metallic music, in which four vocal soloists and chorus are accompanied by four pianos and percussion. But Stravinsky originally composed the work for an arresting ensemble consisting of a large wind and brass contingent (including two fluegelhorns), a small number of strings and an exotic percussion section (including the zither-like cimbalom and harpsichord).
     With four exciting Russian solo singers (Elena Evseeva, Nadezhda Serdjuk, Viktor Lutsjuk and Sergei Aleksashkin) and with Tilson Thomas' vivid conducting, this version of "Les Noces" (which was begun just after Stravinsky finished "The Rite of Spring") seems far more a rite of sex--a ceremony of primitivistic, randy peasants in drunken libidinous frenzy--than does the nerve-jangling later version.
     The original version was also closer to Stravinsky's Russian roots than the cosmopolitan composer later wanted to publicly acknowledge. He was soon to cool his music by turning to classical musical forms and also, in some cases, to classical Greek literature for inspirations. (He even dumped cold water on "Les Noces" when he tried to devise a mechanical accompaniment for it with player pianos in 1919).
     The height of Stravinsky's Greek period was reached with "Persephone" in 1937. The text is Andre Gide's reworking of the myth of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld who brings spring to Earth. Stravinsky created this 45-minute work for actress and dancer (who recite and mime the title role), tenor (who, as the priest Eumolpus, sings the narration), chorus and orchestra. The music has a lovely pastoral flavor shot through with sharp dramatic outbursts. It ends in a soft languor. Stravinsky once pointed out that no one had noticed the place in the score where he had anticipated boogie woogie by a decade.
* * *
     The San Francisco Symphony performance was warm and beautiful. The French actress Stephanie Cosserat delivered her lines from memory in a captivatingly reserved manner (there was, unfortunately, no dancer). The tenor, Stuart Neill, was stentorian (although not as well-controlled as he is on the orchestra's recording of the work). The orchestra, as it was all night, was a font of color; the chorus, hard-working and accurate.
     "Symphony of Psalms," written in 1930, completed the program's picture of Stravinsky with a glimpse at his spiritual side. His religious music is devout to a degree. He follows Bach in trying to capture God in the details, with clever, entrancing counterpoint. But the ceremony and incense of his Russian soul are not altogether missing, not with the delicious beauty of the wind chords, the lively rhythms or the spicy harmony. All of this seems almost as if Stravinsky were winking at his God as much as praying to him. Or maybe he knew that he was already something of a god himself.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times