American Symphony’s Stravinsky Exploration

Igor Stravinsky is generally considered one of the most important 20th century composers.  Born in Russia in 1882, he left as a young composer to write ballets for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, which was based in Western Europe and performed its most celebrated premieres in Paris.  Outside Russia when the communist takeover occurred, Stravinsky remained in the west, making his home variously in France, Switzerland, and finally the United States, where he died in New York in 1971. 

Although Russian folk music long played a part in his melodic, rhythmic and harmonic language, he ultimately became a true cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.   The American Symphony's concert at Carnegie Hall last night focused on his post-Russian career, which is actually not such a novelty since almost everything for which he is now remembered, and the vast bulk of his large compositional output, postdates his residency in his homeland.  What made this program distinctive was that it did not include any of the most frequently played Stravinsky works, instead focusing on relatively unfamiliar music.

Leon Botstein conducted a program comprised entirely of vocal music, but in widely varied forms and in three languages: Russian, Latin, and English.  With seven distinctly individualistic works on the program, there was much variety, but at the same time, Stravinsky's very distinctive style of orchestration, use of voices, harmonies and rhythms pervaded the program, giving it great unity.  Everything sounded like the expression of the same genius, just presenting different "faces" depending on the nature of the texts he was setting.  The Collegiate Chorale Singers and several vocal soloists joined the orchestra for this program.

The program began with a rarity, a work whose premiere outside Russia did not occur until 2011!  Stravinsky arranged "The Song of the Volga Boatmen," a traditional Russian song, for bass soloist and full orchestra specifically for use by the famed Feodor Chaliapin, sometime in the 1920s.  It wasn't published at the time, but the parts survived and the entire thing was reconstructed for performance recently.  Keith Miller sang the work with great spirit, but the orchestration was heavy enough to challenge his ability to cut through or project over the orchestra at times.  I don't think this was a problem of vocal power on the part of Mr. Miller, whose subsequent performance in the Requiem Canticles sounded superb.  I think this orchestration, characteristic of Stravinsky's early sumptuous orchestrational style best known from the Firebird Ballet, was just too heavy.  (He undoubtedly had the unusually powerful voice of Chaliapin in mind when he wrote it.)

The rest of the program consisted of works that are lesser known quantities, and then mainly from recordings.  The only work on the program that gets anything like regular performances was the final offering: Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra, and even this not so frequently.  I've been a regular New York City concertgoer for almost 35 years, and I think I may have heard Symphony of Psalms performed once before, and not any of the other pieces on the program, although I have recordings of all of them in my collection. This is why the program fit so well into the central programming theme of the ASO: to explore unknown music by relatively unknown composers as well as relatively unknown music by well-known composers.  Although Stravinsky was one of the most famous composers of the 20th century, only a handful of his works get regular performances on orchestral programs today.  Apart from the three Russian folk ballets (Firebird, Petrouchka, and Rite of Spring), the pieces one is most likely to confront in a typical concert season might include the Symphony in Three Movements, perhaps the Violin Concerto (on the edge of the repertory), Jeux des cartes (ballet), and perhaps the oratorio Oedipus Rex.  His opera full-length, The Rake's Progress, has entered the repertory of many major opera companies, but is still a relative rarity compared to the contemporary operas by Benjamin Britten. There are many fine works by Stravinsky that one just doesn't hear very often, and this program provided a welcome opportunity to hear them. 

Zvezdoliki, a short cantata for male chorus and orchestra first performed in 1939, is a genuine rarity, and one could hear why, as there is little in the short work to haunt one's musical memories.  Apart from the distinctive musical voice, most of the works on this program also share Stravinsky's greatest lack – a distinctively engaging personal melodic voice.  In my opinion, Stravinsky was a meticulous craftsman whose musical ingenuity showed itself in his harmonies, rhythmic intricacy, and the colorful juxtaposition of instruments and voices, but when he wasn't using or imitating Russian folk tunes, he was not particularly good at coming up with original memorable melodies.  (This is no disqualification for musical greatness; Beethoven, generally acclaimed one of the greatest composers of all time, built monumental symphonic structures out of short motifs that by themselves do not seem to be greatly memorable or original melodies, although Beethoven could, at times, produce genuinely touching melodies.) 

Whether he was setting Russian poems or Latin liturgical texts, Stravinsky tended to an abstract musical language that does not entice the listener with gracious melody.  Instead, there are bracing chords, pungent dissonances, great walls of sound contrasted with very quiet moments, and always intriguing instrumental colors and interesting rhythms.  This proved true throughout the first half of the concert, which continued with the rarely performed Requiem Canticles – taking selected verses from the Latin Requiem mass – and the one-act opera Mavra, a droll comedy from the early 1920s involving a young woman who tries to fool her mother by hiring her young male lover to pose as a serving girl – a bit of nonsense that is probably too short at 30 minutes to inspire many opera companies to think of staging it.

Ann McMahon Quintero (mezzo-soprano) and Keith Miller (bass-baritone) were the fine soloists in Requiem Canticles, and Ms. Quintero returned to portray the mother in Mavra, jointed by Anne-Carolyn Bird (soprano) as the young woman, Nicholas Phan (tenor) as her young lover, and Heather Johnson (mezzo-soprano) as their gossipy neighbor. 

After intermission, we had Canticum Sacrum, setting more religious texts in Latin, with soloists Nicholas Phan and Jonathan Beyer (baritone).  This struck me as a very abstract exercise, typical of Stravinsky's 12-tone period of the 1950s, but somehow the composer's individual style of rhythm and orchestration stamps his personality on the music, making it sound totally unlike the Second Viennese School composers who originated the 12-tone compositional system. 

Then came Babel, a short movement setting the Genesis story, which Stravinsky composed as his contribution to a joint effort commissioned by conductor Werner Janssen from composers active in California in the mid-1940s to put together a symphony illustrating various episodes from the Bible's Book of Genesis.  The commission was for works that would combine spoken narration with music, possibly including chorus.  In this case, Stravinsky set the text in English, using a narrator — here the very effective John Douglas Thompson — and a male chorus.  Heard outside the context of the entire Genesis symphony, it seems a bit of a puzzle, a short piece that doesn't add up to much.  Perhaps the ASO could, in a future season, give us the entire Genesis Symphony, which would be a very enticing project in light of the composers involved (who included Schoenberg, by the way).

They concluded with Symphony of Psalms, the one piece on the program that is occasionally performed and recorded.  Stravinsky was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky (along with many other notable composers of the 1930s) to write something in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Most of the responses were works for orchestra, but Stravinsky decided to set verses from three selections from the Book of Psalms, using the standard Latin translation that has been adopted by the Catholic Church. 

This may seem odd at first, since he could just as well have set the original Hebrew texts, since he wasn't composing on commission from a Catholic Church.  Leonard Bernstein set Hebrew psalm texts in his Chichester Psalms, commissioned for an Anglican Church, when one might expect rather a setting in English.  One must remember Stravinsky's peculiarities with language and his very practical approach of trying to produce works that will be frequently performed.  His oratorio Oedipus Rex is set in Latin, even though the original text was Greek.  He wanted the text to have an archaic sound, but there is an eminently practical aspect of this; professional choruses are familiar with Latin, since they sing so many Masses and Requiems in that language, but outside of Greece, it would be a challenge for a chorus to learn an hour-long oratorio in that unfamiliar language.  Similarly, he might have thought, with Hebrew for a work to be premiered in Boston, and hopefully to be performed thereafter throughout the western concert world.  And it may just be that at that time in his life he preferred to set Latin due to the sound of the language.  But he later made a splendid job of setting Hebrew text in "Abraham and Isaac"…

I thought all the performances last night were worthy, but the performance of the Symphony of Psalms was truly extraordinary.  In some of the earlier, shorter pieces on the program, I had a sense that the orchestra and chorus were sometimes feeling their way through music they had not completely assimilated (although this did not seem a problem with the vocal soloists, who seemed really "inside" their parts), but in Symphony of Psalms there was a confidence of execution that may also reflect the work's greater familiarity.  Indeed, here is a piece where there are sufficiently interesting turns of musical phrase to make up for the composer's lack of distinctive melodic invention, and the text actually seems to propel the music (as it doesn't quite so clearly do in works like Requiem Canticles or Canticum Sacrum, which seem surprisingly abstract in their emotional quality given the texts they are setting).

On balance, this was a very interesting concert, well executed, and helpful in bringing to light the less-well-known works of an important twentieth century composer.  Once again Botstein and the ASO have given New York concertgoers an experience they cannot get from other performers who stick more to established classics in their programming.  It would be great if more of these pieces were to be absorbed into the regular repertory, as one suspects that appreciation for them would grow with repeated exposure.


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