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Philharmonic Series Ends, but Moment Still Belongs to Stravinsky

Music Review

March 14, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Monday night, an hour before a sold-out concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, a line for returned tickets had already formed. It was the last event in the orchestra's Stravinsky Festival. And Esa-Pekka Salonen, in an onstage discussion, was asked to explain the festival's wild success.

"Stravinsky's time has arrived," Salonen answered.

Clearly it has. Four all-Stravinsky programs in a row, along with a number of panels and associated events around town, attracted exceptional audience interest--everything was well-attended, half of the 10 concerts sold out.

But perhaps Salonen underestimated his own powers of persuasion. At a festival preview--another discussion, this time with Salonen and stage director Peter Sellars at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--ideas about Stravinsky the person and the composer were being tossed out and bounced off the walls like pingpong balls.

Was the composer, as Sellars claimed one moment, the great sacred conscience of the century? Was he an avaricious monster, as Sellars announced the next? Or was he the voice of exile that so characterized the 20th century?

Like a mirror, Stravinsky can reflect anything. His music is not about development but about being in the moment, Zen-like, in the fashion of the American avant-garde. But his music is also deeply religious ritual. And it is a cubist refraction of reality. It is pure theater, pure dance, pure physical energy, pure rhythmic invention, pure design, pure calculation, pure intellect.

Salonen finally said, joking (but only half-joking), that the festival was really for him; he wanted to further explore a composer whose shadow looms over so many composers and musicians of our day. Salonen even admitted he had once been ready to purchase Stravinsky's Hollywood house, until, setting foot inside he realized that he couldn't possibly compose in that aura and just had to get out of there.

It was this involvement, personal and artistic, that could be felt in every note Salonen conducted over the past 3 1/2 weeks. Stravinsky lived longer in Los Angeles than anywhere else, and his ghost walks among us. Many local musicians remember working with him (and they were on panels to talk about it).

Consequently, the Philharmonic concerts felt personal and real. Salonen approached the pieces with a questing enthusiasm that was obviously felt by musicians and the audiences alike. Night after night, the Philharmonic played not just at its peak but as if utterly alive to the Stravinskyan moment. And over time, we all became fluent in Stravinsky's complexities. Yet the composer still remained inscrutable, which made the music downright addictive. Audiences were not pandered to, not preached to, not even always entertained. They were stimulated, and they loved it.

The splendid Green Umbrella Concert was a perfect example. It included the most difficult and controversial piece of the festival, "Abraham and Isaac." In this work from the early '60s, a baritone sings the Hebrew verses of Genesis in a style that might be described as 12-tone cantillation; a chamber orchestra (never all playing together) provides intricate, accompanimental scrimshaw. The piece, usually considered stern, abstract, unlovable music, is very rarely performed.

Sanford Sylvan was the baritone. He sang the 12-minute work from memory with a rabbinical intensity that alone would have made this performance impressive and gripping. But he brought something more to it. In his focus on word and feeling, he showed an Abraham so overwhelmed by the experience of nearly slaughtering his son Isaac that he returns to Beer-sheba transformed. Having been in the presence of the Lord, he now confronts the feeling of no longer belonging among his own people, of being an exile in his own land.

And it was as though, through complicated and difficult music, we could understand Stravinsky's own struggle with identity, belief and nationality. Here, where we least expected it, Sylvan (who has performed this work in a staging by Sellars in Amsterdam) revealed what it is that gives Stravinsky his enduring power over us.

The rest of the concert was lively and brought pleasure--which is, of course, another reason folks have flocked to hear these performances. Olli Mustonen was the zealous pianist in a trio version of "The Soldier's Tale," and he set off sparks, almost as if he were the Devil in the tale animating the Soldier's violin (played with volatility by Martin Chalifour) but somewhat overpowering the usually characterful clarinet (Michele Zukovsky). The Three Pieces for String Quartet provided the evening with its Stravinskyan acid; "Priboautki" (exuberantly sung by Sylvan) evoked the composer's old Russia; Octet provided good cheer.

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