Saturday, September 22, 2018

Russian and Neoclassical Stravinsky at Davies

Pablo Picasso’s 1920 drawing of Igor Stravinsky (public domain, from Wikipedia)

Those who know a thing or two about the composer Igor Stravinsky, such as the author(s) of his Wikipedia page, know that his productivity tends to be classified according to three periods in his life. The earliest of these is his “Russian” period, which initially reflected the influences of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he began to study in 1905, but would then flourish through his work with Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes was based in Pais. Diaghilev also served as one of Stravinsky’s teachers, exposing him to aspects of art and history (including music history) that Stravinsky had previously disregarded.

By 1920 Stravinsky’s music was reflecting Diaghilev’s efforts to shift his attention; and the composer was moving into his “Neoclassical” period, whose beginning is often associated with the music composed for Léonide Massine’s ballet for Diaghilev entitled “Pulcinella,” with a score that drew heavily on Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (or so Stravinsky thought at the time). Stravinsky’s neoclassicism sustained him through his move to the United States and his productively rich collaborations with the choreographer George Balanchine, culminating ultimately in his only full-length opera The Rake’s Progress, whose “roots” in the eighteenth century owe as much to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as “Pulcinella” owed to Pergolesi. As Dorothy Lamb Crawford documented in her comprehensive study Evenings On and Off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939–1971, Stravinsky then went through a dry period during which he first became aware of approaches to atonality that Arnold Schoenberg had been exploring as early as 1901; and, beginning in 1952, he started to try his hand at serial techniques that were not always atonal. That “Serial” period would sustain him for the rest of his productive life.

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) launched a two-week series of concerts devoted entirely to Stravinsky’s music. Ironically, almost all of the repertoire focuses on the Russian period; but each program will offer a single Neoclassical work. Last night SFS presented its first performance of its first program, which coupled the neoclassical mélodrame (whose category reflects texts both spoken and sung) “Perséphone” with Stravinsky’s first full ballet score for Diaghilev, “The Firebird.” The contrast between the two periods could not have been sharper, but that contrast was as evident in the execution of the scores as it was in the ideas behind those scores.

“The Firebird” is clearly well-established in MTT’s comfort zone. Stravinsky draws upon an abundantly rich palette on instrumental sonorities (so rich that one has to wonder how it could all be crammed into a ballet company’s orchestra pit); and MTT not only appreciates every detail in that palette but also knows how to bring it to the awareness of the attentive listener. Last night he presented the complete score, rather than any of the suites that Stravinsky subsequently extracted from that score, using projected titles to lead the curious listener through the stages of the ballet’s narrative. (Such titles might have made his account of the full “Appalachian Spring” score less of a slog last week; but Martha Graham’s scenario was not as rich in narrative as the one that Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine developed for “Firebird.”) As one who has been familiar with the “Firebird” scenario for the better part of my life (having first encountered it in my pre-college days), I paid little attention to the titles but thoroughly appreciated MTT’s attentive balance between the work’s musical and narrative demands.

Sadly, such attention was not as clearly in evidence in the performance of “Perséphone,” which filled the first half of the program. This was not a “Diaghilev project.” Rather, the music was written for Ida Rubinstein, who broke with the Ballets Russes in 1911 to pursue her own approaches to the synthesis of narrative, dance, and music. The narrative of “Perséphone” is the myth of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of agriculture. The myth concerns her abduction by Hades, ruler of the dead in his underworld, who takes Persephone as his wife. Mourning the loss of her daughter, Demeter neglects her attention to fertility; and crops begin to die. As a result Zeus rules that Persephone must divide her time equally between her mother and her husband, spending half the year with each of them, thus giving rise to a mythic explanation of the seasons.

Sadly, by the time “Perséphone” was first performed in 1934, the pieces of Rubinstein’s project never fit together as compatibly as Zeus’ resolution of Persephone’s fate. The greatest incompatibility seemed to have been between Stravinsky and Rubinstein’s librettist André Gide. As the notes by the late Michael Steinberg for the program book put it, Stravinsky liked to work with sonorous syllables, which were absent from Gide’s focus on elegant wording. “Perséphone” also comes from a time when Stravinsky was beginning to cultivate a somewhat hostile relationship with the instruments in the string family, turning away from the lush use of strings that can be found in the “Firebird” score in favor of drier and starker sonorities.

The result, at least as it was conceived last night by MTT, tended to lumber its way through Gide’s narrative, which is delivered verbally through both a narrator (Leslie Caron) and a tenor (Nicholas Phan). In this case projected titles provided English translation, but Gide’s rhetoric was too convoluted to hold up to a phrase-by-phrase account of his words. By all rights the program book should have provided both French and English texts, giving the listener better assistance in negotiating the unfolding of the narrative.

To be fair, however, it frequently seemed as if Stravinsky was having as much trouble with Gide’s phrase structures as those of us sitting in the audience. As a result, much of the music came off as little more than flat recitation, highlighted by bursts of instrumental color and imaginative approaches to dissonance. Furthermore, if Stravinsky had it in for the strings (whose audibility was often drowned out by the other instruments), one came away with the impression that he was also not particularly fond of tenors. Phan’s upper register was pushed far beyond his tessitura, and what may have been intended a dramatic intensity came across as little more than harsh yawps.

Ironically, MTT has been returning to this piece since he presented its first SFS performance in 1997. One would think that, after over twenty years, he would have been interpreting the music from a solid foundation that would lead the attentive listener through Stravinsky’s landscape, however many rough spots there were in that landscape. Sadly, the performance amounted to little more than a dutiful trudge through the episodes of the narrative, leaving the impression that “Perséphone” was far from one of the finest moments in Stravinsky’s richly productive career.

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