Igor, We Hardly Knew Ye

Michael McDonagh on December 4, 2007
Igor Stravinsky was a constantly changing artist. He's also the most Janus-like of all musicians — always looking forward and back at once. His work, when it was new, puzzled and challenged in equal measures. And though Cocteau virtually wrote him off early in the game, Erik Satie came to his defense in a 1922 Vanity Fair article. An artist, he cautioned, must be judged by each individual piece, and not by how these fit into his work as a whole, or square with that of other composers, living or dead. And though sometimes visceral — what could be more aimed at the gut than the 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps? — his other works, like Agon (1955-57) are sometimes seen as either inscrutably aimed at the head, or downright bad.
Laurel Ensemble
San Francisco's crackerjack and quite glam Laurel Ensemble, which launched its third home season this fall with a concert Saturday night at Old First Church, had the inspired idea of presenting short and even shorter works from almost all periods of the composer's output, with a deuce set by two other musicians. Stravinsky, like his contemporary analogue Philip Glass, is a man of the theater, and as such both seem to mask their identities in the work at hand, so much so that some see these as impersonal, or even completely emotion-free. Will the real Igor Stravinsky please stand up? While the Laurel's offering of seven pieces by Stravinsky and three other composers didn't definitively answer that question, it did go a long way to providing one. Early (or, as Glass once described them to me, "folkloric"), middle neoclassic (c. 1920-1950), and late (serial; c. 1952-1971) periods were represented, and the Laurel made a strong case for each. Suite Italienne (1933), commissioned from Stravinsky by violinist Samuel Dushkin, showed this mask-changing artist's features in bold relief. Violinist Christina Mok and guest pianist Laurie Lack made its virtuosic demands and effects— the violin's sudden, in-a-distance, lowering of volume when it defers to the piano, for example — seem easy as pie, and Mok's tone was hard-edged, or directly emotional without being overly heart-on-sleeve. Quinto Maganini's arrangement of Rondes des Princesses (1918) for flute (the fully-in-control Sarah Holzman) from Stravinsky's neoimpressionist, folkloric Firebird (1909) made its points discreetly and with grace. Its line almost seems to channel Debussy's freewheeling one in Afternoon of a Faun.

A Notable Shift

Stravinsky's debt to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov — a second father to him — was of course made after his death. More problematic in his lifetime, and even now, 36 years after his death, is Stravinsky's "conversion," under the influence of his friend Robert Craft, to the 12-note school founded by Schoenberg, in which he seemed to make an artistic about-face, just after Schoenberg's death in 1951. Stravinsky's serial period was represented here by a bad — though the audience applauded it as if were the second coming — piece, Three Songs From Shakespeare (1953), sung with apparent accuracy and point by soprano Catherine Seidel. The elaborate vocal line, with its tone-rows and inversions, had nothing to do with the poem's diction and emotional content, though there were welcome glimmers here and there of Stravinsky's first-period "primitive'' outbursts. Still, his later pieces in this style — not for Agon, but for the CBS television opera The Flood (1955-57) — convince the ear, and move the heart. The much-commissioned American Joan Tower (born 1938) was represented by Petroushkates (1980), her striking homage extension of Petroushka (1911), the second of his three ballets for Serge Diaghilev. Petroushskates used Petrouchka's signature bitonal chord — Steve Reich's a big fan of it, too — and showed both compositional finesse and respect for her players. Copland's Threnody I Igor Stravinsky in Memoriam (1971 ) was, in this performance at least, a dutiful, and at about two minutes, not very convincing homage for flute (Holzman again) and string drone (Mok, plus violist Jenny Douglass and cellist Krisanthy Desby). James Cohn, born in Queens, New York, in 1928, got his due — the Laurel's set to do more of his work in May — with his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 64 (1987). Cohn's viola sonata isn't very imaginative. But Stravinsky's (Petite) Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat (1919), in his trio version down from seven instruments to three — violin, clarinet, piano — showed Stravinsky's theatrical sense in high dudgeon, especially in his fourth movement (there are five). It offers proof, if any was needed, that he can seduce the body, mind, and heart. And the acutely listening-to-each-other Laurel, joined here by Ann Lavin on clarinets, gave it their estimable all.