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WEEKEND REVIEWS | Music Review

Stravinsky's 'Firebird' Ignites With Philharmonic, Pianist Mustonen

March 12, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

If we are to believe Stravinsky's opinions as expressed in his writings, we could easily conclude that the composer would not have approved of Olli Mustonen's performances of the three Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra that made up the first half of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Stravinsky program Friday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For that matter, Stravinsky might have had his reservations about Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well, despite the fact that the Philharmonic's music director has made a very nice and endlessly interesting Stravinsky festival over the past month (it concludes tonight with a Green Umbrella concert at the Zipper Hall of the Colburn School). Robert Craft--Stravinsky's young colleague, confidant and mouthpiece during the last two decades of the composer's life--once told me that he had found a Salonen performance of "The Rite of Spring" in London quite dashing but all wrong. Stravinsky was against "interpretation"--just play the notes, folks.

But I wonder if the old man might not have practically jumped out of his seat along with the rest of us in response to Salonen's astounding "Rite" the previous week. I don't see how he couldn't have been dazzled by the sheer brilliance of the Philharmonic's "Firebird," which concluded the Friday program. And even though Mustonen's highly theatrical piano playing was willful in contrast to Stravinsky's own dry keyboard style, it, too, wonderfully brought the concertos to life.

Part of the fun of this festival has been that it asks more questions than it answers, with the biggest and most unanswerable question of all being: Who was Stravinsky, anyway? In the three works for piano and orchestra we hear what might be considered three different Stravinskys speaking with one voice. The Concerto for Piano and Winds was written in 1923, when the composer attempted to find a modern equivalent of Baroque music. The architectural fashion in Paris in the '20s and '30s was to undo Beaux-Arts "damage" by renovating old apartments into ultramodern ones. The Concerto retains some of the character of a redesigned Bach and Scarlatti keyboard style, set in bold relief by trenchant harmonies and the spiky sound of wind instruments.

In the "Capriccio" for piano and standard (but small) orchestra that was written six years later, the impetus became an updating of the high Romantic, that of Verdi and Tchaikovsky. A further impetus for composing both the Concerto and "Capriccio" was for material that Stravinsky could play himself on tour. He was a nervous, blunt, percussive pianist, and while he had success touring, looming celebrity that the composer was, few noted pianists have ever picked the concertos up.

Mustonen made them vivid in a way radically different from Stravinsky's own. This young Finnish pianist drives some listeners crazy with his physical mannerisms and sometimes with his musical ones as well. He slouches away from the keyboard, raises his hands high over his head and then flings his fingers down on the keys like a bird snapping up a prey. He is spectacularly accurate, and the attacks seem to send notes out as if they were auditory projectiles. It is quite a sight and quite a sound, and it is a highly effective approach to the percussive Stravinsky. The notes, as they should, dance.

The third concerto, "Movements," a very short chamber piece written in 1959, is pattern music. A series of tiny, intricate phrases from the orchestra (either a solo instrument or small group of instruments) introduces rhythmically advanced piano responses --over the course of five very short movements. There is not, as in Webern, the implied development; there is not, as in Boulez, whom Stravinsky heard with interest around this time, a revolutionary attitude. Rather the technique is, with Stravinsky, more a game, one in which the rules are kept hidden and all the moves, curious. You hardly know what has hit you, and the effect is exhilarating. Until hearing Mustonen play it, and Salonen conduct it, however, I never knew that the notes--12-tone derived--could also dance.

"The Firebird" is, of course, famous, popular and readily accessible dance music, Stravinsky's first big, and most traditional hit. There would seem to be little new to say about it at this time. Salonen settled for a performance that was vibrant on every level and gorgeous. The orchestra played it fabulously, each section a standout. When a performance is this good, everything becomes fresh again.

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