L.A. STRAVINSKY FESTIVAL

Operating on the brave but often-challenged principle that an audience still exists for, and cares about, the music of the recent past, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current “Focus on Igor Stravinsky” festival focusses broadly. Over four weeks ending March 12, there have been orchestral concerts, chamber-music events, discussions, symposiums and art shows; following the final event the performing ensemble moves on to New York’s Lincoln Center, for a cut-down reprise over the weekend March 16-19.
There is no anniversary date involved; in Los Angeles, none is needed. Stravinsky was a vivid presence there for over 30 years, longer than at any of his other adopted hometowns. People who were involved in his music are readily available to reminisce, even to reenact. (A tribute to Stravinsky’s sad run-ins with the Hollywood movie machine is, understandably, missing from the current tribute.) At one Philharmonic pre-concert gathering John Clifford, who had danced in George Balanchine’s choreography of “Agon,” and Carole Valleskey, the Chosen Maiden in the Joffrey Ballet’s restoration of the original “Rite of Spring,” recreated some of their movements on a small stage; the crowd could then hear Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performances of those works with refreshed eye and ear.
Salonen is a marvelous conductor of Stravinsky’s quirks and brainy adventures; something jells, and there are records to prove it. The “Agon” performance was a revelling in icy pinpoints, with the cheeky imitations of antique dancing subtly colored and the music’s momentum nicely proportioned. Salonen’s familiar take on the “Rite” on the same program is, simply put, one of the great performances of anything, by anybody, in our time – not merely for the “what-hit-me?” impact of its final “Danse sacrale” but for its projection of mounting terror that makes that opening bassoon solo as much a dire prophesy as an instrumental trick.
Alongside the expected “Firebird” and “Rite,” the Los Angeles planners have ventured somewhat afield, if not always successfully. Between “Agon” and the “Rite” came “Mavra,” a delicious trifle of a comic Russian folk-opera, sung with high gusto by visitors from the Kirov Opera. On opening night the “Symphony of Psalms” was magnificently set forth, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale superbly prepared by its conductor-designate Grant Gershon – a rebirth for that venerable institution. But this was followed by the seldom-heard “Perséphone,” a work from that Stravinskian plateau of the mid-1930s dotted with works diatonic and, if truth be told, rather bland. A narration (in English by a husky-voiced Holland Taylor) and the labored French of John Aler’s tenor solos did little for this revival of André Gide’s mystical text (a kind of “rite of spring” on Olympus’ slopes).
The final orchestral program, to be repeated in New York, lists pianist Olli Mustonen in Stravinsky’s three short piano-plus-orchestra works, including the wondrous Concerto for Piano and Winds, eminently deserving of the revival zeal that has sparked this whole event. The final chamber program, also slated for New York, includes such bracing early fare as the neo-classic Octet and the “Dunbarton Oaks” concerto. And whatever the ups and downs of Stravinsky’s reputation over his long lifetime and into recent years, the Philharmonic’s festival has been drawing capacity crowds. Somebody must be doing something right.