On October 8 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley California, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London performed a program dedicated entirely to the work of Igor Stravinsky. We at CatSynth were in attendance at this event.
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega. Courtesy of Cal Performances.]
The second half of the program featured one of his most famous works, The Rite of Spring. But it was the first half that was the most interesting and inspiring, as it featured some of later and infrequently performed works, culminating in the masterpiece Agon. In fact, the concert opened with Fanfare for Three Trumpets, which was originally intended as an opening for the piece that became Agon. The fanfare puts many of the elements that characterized Stravinsky’s later music in a compact form, including more atonal and serial elements, and some of the sparse sounds and character from pre-Rennaisance European music.
The Fanfare was followed by Symphonies of Wind Instruments. I definitely enjoyed this focus on wind instruments, as it is more in my background than the strings that dominate orchestral music. But the piece also shows the combination and contrasts of musical style and discipline that cross both his middle and late periods. It has some of the elements that one might call “neo-classical”, and has a very systematic structure. It does pay homage to Claude Debussy, whom Stravinsky had known and admired when the two were together in Paris. But it also includes elements attributed to his Russian heritage (in particular, liturgical elements from the Orthodox church) and complex mixing of meters and tempi. The orchestration for wind instruments gives the overall piece a more austere quality.
The increased abstraction in Stravinsky’s later work in the U.S. after World War II in many ways culminates with Agon. The piece borrows elements from the serialism of both the Second Viennese School as later composers like Stockhausen and Messiaen, but especially combination of pitch and orchestration found in the work of Anton Webern. Indeed, characteristics Webern can be heard throughout the piece, including the use of mandolin in the orchestra. It was originally a dance piece, but an abstract “dance about dance”, and it worked even in a purely concert setting. It features strong rhythms and texture that pair with dance, but it mixes in complex counter-melodies in meters such as 5/16 or 7/16. The use of twelve-tone series is not orthodox, and mixed with folk and even jazzy elements. We can hear some of the ritual qualities that characterized Symphonies as well. It is indeed a very complex piece, but also a playful one and one that was great to hear performed live. It is unfortunately not performed that often.
By contrast, the Rite of Spring, which followed in the second half of the concert, seemed quite tame and familiar. In addition to being one of Stravinsky’s most recognized works, it also has an overall sound that influenced (directly or indirectly) orchestral film scores in the coming decades. As such it has a comfortable quality even while being forceful and intense. It has hard in 2016 to imagine what about this piece would cause concert-goers to riot in 1913.
Conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen has been quite the noted interpreter of Stravinsky’s music, conducting many of his pieces with the Philharmonia Orchestra (and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra before that) and presenting a year-long Stravinsky series. It is great to hear these interpretations, especially of the later and less-known American period. Hopefully some in attendance at Zellerbach Hall that night left with more curiosity about these works.