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Hearing Stravinsky All Over Again

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's festival saluting the composer begins with an appealing twist or two.


To the surprise of the audience, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Stravinsky Festival began Thursday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was Stravinsky's 1941 martini-dry harmonization and orchestration, which nearly got the composer arrested for tampering with national property when he conducted it later in Boston.

Next, a video screen descended showing a clip of Stravinsky as a charming little old Russian man sharing "a drop of Scotch" with an old friend, Russian American composer Nicolas Nabokov, from his only glass during a hotel room visit. Then, Esa-Pekka Salonen made a sudden segue into the first work listed on the program--the little-known "King of the Stars," a short early score for chorus and orchestra in a mystical style entirely untypical of the music that would make Stravinsky famous.

Everywhere there are Stravinsky festivals these days. But Los Angeles has a special hold on Stravinsky--however much we may associate him with St. Petersburg or Paris, he lived here longer than in any other city. And this opening concert of the Philharmonic's three-week festival, though without a specific theme, did serve to introduce the singular man and musician Los Angeles would encounter when he moved here in the late '30s.

"The King of the Stars" (its Russian title is "Zvezdoliki," and it is a setting of a spacey symbolist poem by Constantine Balmont) was written in 1910, shortly after the composer left St. Petersburg for Paris and before he attempted to obscure his Russian roots. The two major works on the program--"Symphony of Psalms" and "Persephone"--are works for orchestra and chorus, from the early '30s. They represent a middle-aged cosmopolitan Neoclassicist who had softened the revolutionary Modernism and Primitivism of his famous early ballets with, in one case, religious devotion and, in the other, Greek myth.

"Symphony of Psalms," which is sung in Latin, was Stravinsky's first major religious score. "Persephone," for which Andre Gide wrote a convoluted text, is Stravinsky's first work in French; a few days after its Paris premiere in early 1934, the composer became a French citizen. Yet as the video clip reminded us, Stravinsky was Russian to the core. And the "Star-Spangled Banner" arrangement--with its spray of dissonance and its crisp rhythmic articulations--further reminded us that Stravinsky approached America, as he did everywhere he lived, on his own terms.

Stravinsky cared little about the texts he set in "Symphony of Psalms" and "Persephone." The Psalms are cut up here and there, Stravinsky often seems more interested in the sounds of the syllables than the meaning of the words. Gide was so irritated by Stravinsky's cavalier treatment of his meter, which the composer accented however he wanted, that the poet left town for the premiere. For Stravinsky, rhythm--musical rhythm--was always king.

Yet what beautiful works these are. "Symphony of Psalms" has a mellow, glowing character from an orchestra without violins and violas but enriched with extra winds (there are five flutes and five trumpets), much deep bass and the glamour of harps and pianos. A seductive lyricism haunts the score, enhanced by strong offbeat rhythmic accents, by a catchy and clever double fugue and, most of all, by a hushed four-note rising figure that lifts the word "alleluia" as if on angels' wings.

"Persephone" contains some of the most tender music Stravinsky ever wrote, but the strangeness of its form has made it obscure (at least until recently--last year the San Francisco Symphony won three Grammys for its recording of it). Gide retells the Homeric legend of the goddess who, when abducted by Hades to be his bride in the Underworld, leaves the earth in perpetual winter. A compromise among the gods, however, allows her a season back on earth each year, and hence the return of spring.

Created for actress Ida Rubinstein, "Persephone" was originally staged as a kind of static ballet. Persephone is a spoken part. A tenor sings the role of Eumolpus, who serves as a narrator. The chorus is the engaging voice of the people. For the original production, a dancer also impersonated Persephone.

Gide's text is static, formal, overblown, pedantic. Stravinsky wrote heroic, powerful music for Eumolpus, sensual spring songs for chorus and orchestra, and left Persephone to declaim formally. For the Philharmonic performance, actress Holland Taylor read Gide's lines in colloquial English, lacking the magisterial, classical formality that Stephanie Cosserat brought to a recent San Francisco Symphony performance (and to its recording). John Aler was the over-pressed tenor.

But while "Persephone" did not succeed as dramatic presentation Thursday, it, "Symphony of Psalms" and "King of the Stars" were all illuminated by Salonen's rhythmically alert conducting and by the crisp sound of the Philharmonic (despite not always perfect playing from woodwinds and horns).

A special pleasure of the concert was the Los Angeles Master Chorale, prepared by its music director-designate, Grant Gershon, and singing with superb precision and diction.


* The Los Angeles Philharmonic repeats this program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A., $10-$70. (323) 850-2000.

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