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Critic's Notebook: Igor Stravinsky's connection to PST

Pacific Standard Time was Stravinsky Standard Time for many decades because of the composer's presence in L.A.

November 20, 2011|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Igor Stravinsky conducts in July 1966.
Igor Stravinsky conducts in July 1966. (Ben Olender, Los Angeles…)

In the Getty's shiny large catalog for the Pacific Standard Time festival, Igor Stravinsky's name is a mere footnote. He is added to a list of émigré artists, and even there he comes after novelist Thomas Mann and philosopher-critic Theodor Adorno. He meant more.

When Stravinsky arrived in Los Angeles from Europe in 1940 — having just married his longtime mistress, Vera Sudeikin — he was 58 and the world's most famous composer. He became an American citizen in 1945 and remained here until 1969, when he moved to New York (where he died in 1972). You could even say that during much of the designated 1945-to-1980 period of the PST, a section of the L.A. arts scene became Stravinsky Standard Time. SST was a strange, exotic time zone indeed, but a significant one. Stravinsky gave us a certain cultural credibility that the presence of no other artist in any field could match. He was our art icon.

And if that doesn't make him a PST hipster, maybe this will. Patrick Scott, who curated a Stravinsky in L.A. concert at the Colburn School on Monday night, called him the hippest composer who ever lived, to the cheers of the audience.

Throughout his L.A. years, Stravinsky was a celebrity who frequently conducted as well as composed. I grew up in SST. As a student, I saw him lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, observed him in the audience at new music concerts, read about him in the society pages, met him once, bought his recordings the day they came out, studied his scores, learned to play his clarinet and piano pieces and ranted indignantly that his home for all those years at 1260 N. Wetherly Drive, above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, wasn't on the maps of movie star homes.

He was at the top, at least for a while, of my hit parade, but I would have never thought for a second to put Stravinsky on my hip parade. He didn't seem that kind of hip, the hipster hip of the late '60s.

Obviously, Stravinsky would not have been one to hang out at the Ferus Gallery; he was a little too old and way too Old World for that. He had grown up in late 19th century St. Petersburg society, leaving for good in 1910 for Switzerland and Paris, where he quickly became a sensation for his early ballets — "Firebird," "Petrushka" and "Rite of Spring." He was a contemporary of my grandfather, who was also Russian, so I should have been able to recognize at least something in him that seemed familiar. But in person, Stravinsky appeared to me utterly alien in every way.

He was a tiny man with large facial features, and he didn't seem real. He didn't sound real when he spoke, the accent wasn't the Russian accent I knew. He didn't conduct like a real conductor, but the players adored him and his artificially mechanical beat somehow achieved illuminating results. In some ways he didn't even write what sounded like real music, because it was so pristinely formed and sounded like nothing else. But all that made him perfect for an L.A. known where surface artifice often disguised hidden substance.

He wrote a lot here, in the city in which he lived longer than any other. He also took in a lot. Stravinsky's associate, Robert Craft, once told me that during the composer's declining health at the end, hearing new things, including an early Minimalist Steve Reich recording, lifted his spirits.

Stravinsky was social in Los Angeles, and his society was a swell one. He had, after all, perhaps the most illustrious connections to the art world of anyone in town. The Surrealists were, PST reminds us, a big influence on the L.A. art scene of the '50s. Stravinsky's Parisian collaborations with Picasso and Cocteau and many others were already legendary.

Similarly dazzlingly collaborations continued In L.A., where Stravinsky became close to a wide range of artists, poets and thinkers, along with a couple of mystics. Aldous Huxley was a dear friend, as was Christopher Isherwood. The world came to visit Stravinsky. The film community was in awe of him. "A Windfall of Musicians," Dorothy Lamb Crawford's book about émigrés in Southern California, has a charming photo of Stravinsky at his 75th birthday party cutting a piece of cake and handing it to the popular film composer Franz Waxman. What everyone really wanted, though, was a piece of Stravinsky.

He wanted a piece of them too. Although Stravinsky and Schoenberg — L.A.'s other super-famous émigré composer (who died in 1953) — ran separate compositional camps, Stravinsky ultimately picked up Schoenberg's controversial 12-tone system, thus giving it a new life. His famed collaborations with choreographer George Balanchine, including the great "Agon," came out of the L.A. years. So did Stravinsky's infatuation with early music, which also started a trend.

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