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Scrutinizing Stravinsky

March 11, 2008

The Stravinsky Project, sponsored by Stanford Lively Arts and held at Dinkelspiel Auditorium and other campus venues, is a program designed by the noted music writer Joseph Horowitz, author of several books, including the recent Artists in Exile, a study of European refugees in America in the 1940s. In lectures, conversations, demonstrations, and concerts spanning four days, Horowitz, together with three pianists, Alexander Toradze, George Vatchnadze, and Genadi Zagor, and assisted by Conductor Jindong Cai and the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, conducted a gentlemanly dispute with the late Igor Stravinsky over the meaning of music in general and Stravinsky's compositions in particular.
Stravinsky held some stringent and even paradoxical ideas about the meaning of music. He considered composers to be merely people who put notes together, and denied that music was "about" anything but itself. Yet he made his name as a composer writing scores for ballets with story lines — hardly music that's about nothing but itself — and later in life revealed that parts of his Symphony in Three Movements were inspired by World War II newsreels. (That didn't make it program music, he insisted.)

In the 1920s and 1930s, Stravinsky was the leading composer of "neoclassical" music, a style of composition inviting dry, objective, often sparse performances, which Stravinsky encouraged. Yet in his youth he had been trained in composition by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a foremost exponent of lush, Romantic Russian nationalism. Stravinsky's own earliest works are in that style, of which his first great ballet, The Firebird of 1910, is the last.

But our three pianists have a different view of Stravinsky. All raised in the Soviet Union, where Stravinsky's work after about 1918 was basically proscribed, they see him as a deeply Russian composer, heir to the opera and ballet proclivities, and the passion and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky. In his later years in France, Switzerland, and the United States, the fastidious Stravinsky dismissed Russia as a rude, uncouth country, and did as much as possible to separate himself from his homeland.

But though you can take the composer out of Russia, can you really take Russia out of the composer? Our pianists, when they encountered Stravinsky's later music on coming to the West, thought not. This project, an abridgment of Stravinsky marathons held in Europe, was a test of the proposition that midperiod Stravinsky does not need to be played in the dry "neoclassical" style.
Imagining Inspirations
The Project opened on Thursday with Horowitz lecturing on Stravinsky in his American exile, and continued with additional preconcert talks and demonstrations. At both the Thursday lecture and the Saturday and Sunday preconcert talks, Horowitz played his own Stravinsky music video. In collaboration with Peter Bogdanoff, Horowitz had found World War II newsreels suiting Stravinsky's description of his inspirations for the finale of the Symphony in Three Movements, and matched them with the music. Horowitz cautioned against viewing this as a revealed program to the music. It was just a visual illustration of the composer's stated inspirations, and especially in the opening scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers it was most effective.

The main focus of the festival was on the two full concerts. The one on Friday essentially focused on the intimate or reduced Stravinsky, and consisted of music for one or two pianos. The second concert, on Saturday evening (and repeated Sunday afternoon), was an orchestral concert — the first time the Stanford Symphony Orchestra has played under Lively Arts auspices.

At the piano concert, the most arresting sound came from Zagor and Vatchnadze performing the composer's own arrangement of The Rite of Spring for two pianos. In its original form, this harsh, rugged ballet score uses the resources of a large, extensive symphony orchestra to terrifying effect. But reduced to the compass of two pianos, it makes the listener want to pat it on the head and coo, "Who's a little fear demon?" Nevertheless, Zagor and Vatchnadze pounded out its complexities with great energy and clarity, putting color and character into each line despite lacking an orchestral palette.

Although all three of the pianists also play jazz, there was nothing jazzy about Zagor's 12-minute improvisation on themes from the three famous ballets, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, and Petrushka. Mostly it was a kaleidoscope of reminiscences, with a few clever touches like playing the opening bassoon theme from The Rite of Spring slowly over a chord sequence from The Firebird.

The heart of the piano program was the second half. Toradze played the Tango from 1940; Vatchnadze played the 1924 Piano Sonata and was joined by Zagor for the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos of 1935. Here, especially in the concerto, could be heard influences from jazz, which Stravinsky learned while living in Paris. But the promised Russian influence was more prominent than jazz in the performance style. Both the sonata and the concerto usually sound nothing like this. A typical neoclassical rendition is dry, light, and staccato. These were heavy, legato, with emotional expression in tempo variations and melodic lines.
Shades of Prokofiev
But was it more Russian? When played in the neoclassical style, these works remind me strongly of Prokofiev, surely a Russian composer if not a Romantic one. But these performances sounded totally unlike Prokofiev. What they — especially the fast outer movements of the sonata — sounded more like were distant descendants of Stravinsky's student Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, written in 1903-1904 under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov. Earlier in the concert Zagor played the Scherzo movement of this sonata. The later works are not Romantic-era Russian piano music by any means, but there is room to argue for a distant family resemblance.

At the symphony concert, reimagining midperiod Stravinsky was the role of the Capriccio of 1929, a work for piano and orchestra, with Toradze as soloist. Toradze sees the slow middle movement of this work as an elegy for Stravinsky's ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, who had died just before its composition. But the work was dominated by its sparkling outer movements, which Toradze played with an intent enthusiasm extending to stomping his foot both on and off the pedal.

The concert began with the first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements. Here the largely student orchestra presented itself most excellently, negotiating the music's complex rhythms with confidence and strength. The symphony had been conceived as a piano concerto, and retains a prominent piano part, so special note deserves to be taken of the fine work of orchestral pianist Siqi Mou, hard to see in the back of the orchestra but far from inaudible.

The orchestra seemed more at sea in the lush, lyrical passages of The Firebird, which concluded the concert. But no one in the audience was attending primarily to the orchestra at this point. We were too busy watching the puppets. The Firebird, like The Rite of Spring, is usually heard today as abstract orchestral music. (Last week the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed Firebird, to choreography by Maurice Béjart, in its Berkeley residency.)

But Cai brought the work back to its roots, concocting an abridged suite of his own from the original 1910 ballet score, rather than using any of the revised suites that the composer compiled in later years. The storytelling element came in the form of a narrator giving a simplified version of the romantic fairy tale, while four performers from Robin Walsh Puppetry with harnesses and hand poles gave skilled expressiveness to large silk puppets as they ran around the orchestra.

In the end, I don't think you can prove that Stravinsky is really Russian, or really anything else, this way. What you can show is that there is more than one way to play, and to listen to, his music, and equally more than one way to appreciate the protean quality of his genius. Lively Arts has made a worthwhile contribution to Stanford's educational mission by sponsoring this program, and I look forward to seeing more of its kind in the future.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.