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Was He the Composer of the Century?

With Stravinsky the leading contender for the title, musicians and other experts offer their takes on modern music's magpie.

February 25, 2001|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

The 20th century has barely passed, but the urge to sum it up is strong. When it comes to assessing its music and music makers, the early returns are beginning to come in, and Igor Stravinsky shows all the signs of being crowned the composer of the era.

He was actually a child of the 19th century, born near Russia's St. Petersburg in 1882. He came to sudden international prominence in Paris with three ballets created for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes--"Firebird" (1910), "Petrouchka" (1911) and, especially, "The Rite of Spring."

World War I and the ensuing Russian revolution--with which he was out of sympathy--cut him off from his homeland, so he began a life of exile, living in Switzerland, Paris and, starting in 1939, the United States.

Los Angeles was his home for most of his years in the U.S., but ill health toward the end of his life propelled him to seek treatment in New York, where he died in 1971.

His three ballets for the Ballets Russes remain his most popular pieces, but throughout his life, he created an astonishing variety of works. These ranged from the austere but powerful opera/oratorio "Oedipus Rex," and "Symphony of Psalms," which he dedicated "to the glory of God," through the jazz-inspired "Ebony Concerto" and neoclassical pieces that include "Apollon Musagete," which was used for the Balanchine ballet "Apollo." He even embraced 12-tone composition--pioneered by another candidate for the 20th century composer sweepstakes, Arnold Schoenberg--with late works such as "Agon" and "Canticum sacrum."

In the opening months of the 21st century, much of this output will be celebrated and reconsidered in festivals and performances across the country. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is engaged in a monthlong Stravinsky festival (through March 12), and will be taking two of the programs to New York's Lincoln Center as part of an extensive Stravinsky festival there, through May 13.

The Kansas City Symphony began a three-month Stravinsky festival in Missouri in January. Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a monthlong Stravinsky festival two years ago and will be taking a recent Stravinsky program to Carnegie Hall later this month, where Stravinsky will be on the agenda throughout the spring.

So why is Stravinsky getting such a ride? Why is he the chosen one? When you ask musicians, scholars, orchestra programmers and music directors, a few themes emerge: His chameleon quality; his borrowing from every kind of source, high and low; his ability to adapt and persevere--all make him quintessentially modern, quintessentially relevant. His music, and his life, resonate.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

"He may be the most important artist of any kind who ever lived in this city. The breadth and the depth of his productions are quite amazing. The influence he had not only on his fellow musicians, but also on [other] art forms is major. His music is performed everywhere and his music is undergoing a continuous re-analysis and reevaluation. All these things together are signs of a very major figure.

"What is amazing to me is how little-known his music still is, apart from the three or four or five most popular pieces. [For the festival], I tried to put together programs that would highlight the lesser-known Stravinsky or the almost completely unknown Stravinsky with more popular pieces that are part of the repertoire, just to give the audience an idea of the full scope of his compositions' styles and idioms.

"His orchestration is a subject of endless fascination. The other thing that puts Stravinsky in sort of a separate corner is, of course, rhythm. Stravinsky never, ever wrote a rhythmically uninteresting piece of music in his entire life. His rhythm does things that nobody else's rhythm does. It has almost an independent life."

Joseph Horowitz

Musicologist, former executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the organizer of the Kansas City Symphony Stravinsky festival

"All this attention is uncanny. It's a catch-up act, actually. Finally, in 2001, enough time has expired that we've begun to look at the repertoire of the 20th century as something other than a novelty. Stravinsky is the most influential and prominent composer of the period in question, so he's the major beneficiary of this attention.

"Because of his propensity to reinvent himself, it's fun to program him. You can program him and incorporate a lot of diversity. He's like a thieving magpie, a chronic borrower from such a diversity of sources. This becomes a fascinating study in itself and also makes him perpetually elusive.

"In fact, I don't think there will ever be a definitive reading of this man because he's such a chameleon. He's tantalizingly elusive, which is a function of his propensity to continually reinvent himself."

Steve Reich

American Minimalist composer

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