The Philharmonic’s Stravinsky Festival is at its midpoint as I write. That the performances have been splendid is, of course, a given; something in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s own lively curiosity, his way of reacting to musical adventure of high audacity, the clear long-range vision that enables him to command the cumulative growth of a piece, are marvelously engaged by Stravinsky’s own art. (That same control over developing line, which at times in the past has been challenged in Salonen’s forays into the earlier repertory, made his previous week’s performance of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony an exhilarating surprise.)
The festival has been nicely planned; someone in the Philharmonic management obviously clings to the belief that a thinking audience still exists. Stravinsky’s own presence in Los Angeles has been explored in some depth, in discussions at several venues. Nobody has thought to revive any of Stravinsky’s unhappy run-ins with the movie machine — an insignificant effort from 1934 called The Firebird, which helped itself to some of that music; Le Sacre du Printemps, hacked to bits to assuage Disney’s dinosaurs in Fantasia; the planned score for The Song of Bernadette that ended up instead in the Symphony in Three Movements — and it’s just as well. Instead, we got to meet people who worked with Stravinsky’s music on happier projects. Bill Kraft, former Philharmonic percussionist, let loose some vivid memories at the first pre-concert program. The second program was even more vivid; dancers John Clifford, who had danced in Agon under George Balanchine, and Carole Valleskey, the Chosen One in the Joffrey Ballet’s restoration of the original Le Sacre choreography, re-enacted some of their steps in a space about the size of this page. Then we all went into the hall and heard Agon and Le Sacre with ears and eyes newly refreshed.
In the hall there were other amenities: film with old Igor — always the congenial ham anywhere near a camera — abetting Nicolas Nabokov in killing a bottle of scotch; and with the teacher and earth mother Nadia Boulanger proclaiming a place for Stravinsky in the musical
firmament. There was also “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in the cockeyed re-harmonization that Stravinsky had created here in 1941 and offered as a kind of bribe to the U.S. in anticipation of his citizenship application. (Ah, memories, memories; I was an usher in Boston’s Symphony Hall the night in 1944 when the cops arrived, primed for action should Stravinsky again perpetrate this “tampering with national property,” as he had at his concert the day before. He didn’t.)
At one of the pre-concert gatherings, the composer Stephen Hartke spoke of Stravinsky’s ability to “reinvent” himself — the transitions, for example, from the brutalism of Le Sacre to the austere neoclassicism of Perséphone to the dabbling in 12-tone writing, of which Agon was an early example. It’s a valid way of looking at his work, certainly; if you try to trace a musical genealogy from, say, Le Sacre of 1913 to the Octet of 1923, or from the airy diatonicism of the 1934 Perséphone to the jaunty banishments of tonality in the 1953 Agon, you might need to imagine some drastic DNA shifts along the way. Yet there are shreds of connective tissue: the hard, clean edges and delicious rhythmic quirks in Les Noces help bridge one gap; the ecstatic, floating harmonies in the Balanchine ballet Orpheus — music eminently deserving of a life in the concert hall — do the same later on. Some things remain constant, above all Stravinsky’s immaculate awareness of the nature of movement within any given moment, or in the maintaining of a taut line of progress in a work from start to finish.
My real problem with Stravinsky — and I had better admit right now that I do have problems — is the demand his music exerts that I as listener, too, must endure a similar process of self-reinvention. At Salonen’s first Stravinsky program, the 1930 Symphony of Psalms left me exalted, fulfilled; it is music that I see as well as hear: see as dark stained glass shot through with streaks of dusky gold, hear as a celebration of humanness defying inhuman powers and emerging in triumph ringed in resounding alleluias. (Ah, memories, memories; I am driven to confess, for the first time ever, that in 1948 I reviewed those final pages — for The American Record Guide, when it used to be worth reading — as “mawkish.” Ingemisco, tamquam reus . . .)
There followed, however, the Perséphone of 1934: André Gide’s other kind of rite of spring set to Stravinsky in his cerulean-purity mode. Music that suspends time is not of itself boring: Schubert’s G-major Piano Sonata, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Perséphone is; you have to wonder at its survival, however sporadic: Is it Stravinsky, or merely something else by Stravinsky, a routine reinvention undeserving of its patent? And then you have to reinvent yourself as listener, cast out the spell of the Psalms and its barbaric insinuations, and enter into a less happy image of an inventing machine subsisting for the moment on its own whir. And perhaps the occasion reinvented itself, too, into a more noncommittal kind of performance, with inferior soloists (Holland Taylor narrating in a hoarse, inappropriate English; John Aler’s bland, unmusical French) and the Master Chorale suggesting that it had worked harder and with greater pleasure on the Psalms.
Stravinsky on this diatonic plateau — this work, plus the Violin Concerto and the other pieces for the shaky fiddling of Samuel Dushkin, plus the desiccated twitchings of the Jeu de Cartes ballet — seems to me a reinventor in a creative lull. These things happen, and they do not detract from the huge shadow cast by this tiny elf with, as the movies show, the too-many teeth. Composers who point to Stravinsky as a defining figure, of his own century and continuing into ours, usually cannot pinpoint any specific influence from his pen to theirs. He created no school and left no followers, as did Schoenberg and the Second-Wieners. That doesn’t matter. What matters most is the creative energy he brought to the world around him. More than anyone else in his century, he continued the notion that music was important, that it merited attention and the license to survive. You can’t patent that; it’s too precious.