Bard Music Festival, 2013: Igor Stravinsky and his World, Part I
Every year, the Bard Summer Music Festival enjoys excellent attendance, including some, like Saint-Saëns, in 2012, that even surprised the organizers. I think it also came a something of a surprise that this year’s Stravinsky Festival was a sell-out for most events, to the point that the lobby of Olin Hall was filled with long lines of nervous visitors, hoping to get their hands on a return. Why did Stravinsky, the forbidding dandy, who had no interest whatsoever in providing comfort for his audiences, turn out to be such a draw? Was it the popular film about his love life? Robert Craft’s recent, highly dubious “outing” of him, which created a flurry in the newspapers? The hit play, Nikolai and the Others, at Lincoln Center? Alex Ross’s sainting of Stravinsky in his shallow, but strangely influential book, The Rest is Noise?1 Or is it simply hip to like Stravinsky these days?
In any case, news travels fast in such packed crowds. I heard several reports that Stravinsky himself was seen several times in the crowd and was even mistaken for some of the lecturers and even Maestro Botstein himself—all much younger men than Stravinsky at his demise, as one would expect to behold him in spiritual form. There was also a story—the most plausible one, I think—in which Stravinsky, this time in full eld, caused a ruckus somewhere upstairs at Olin. A few of the other elderly men in a queue (One can hardly call them gentlemen!) took exception to his very slow progress in the facility and threatened him with their canes. Stravinsky turned about, gave them a fiery glance from a wet eye hugely enlarged by his thick spectacles, raised his own cane—one far finer than any directed at him—and brandished it at the offenders, shouting in his Russian accent, “Quos ego…!” which sent the crowd scrambling out of the way in terror.
There were many splendid performances, and a couple of problematic, but certainly not uninteresting ones. This time there were also a few questionable aspects of presentation which were rather bothersome. I’ll discuss those in their proper places. This doesn’t mean that the Festival was anything less than the delightful and enlightening immersion it always is.
Just last night I happened to read a program note about Johannes Brahms, who died at sixty-three, which pointed out that his career spanned two ages, that is, as far as the construction of the pianoforte was concerned: the age of the wooden frame giving way to the metal frame—not that vast political, social, and cultural changes did not take place in Germany, Austria, and the rest of the world over those two generations. One could say the same of Beethoven, who only lived to be fifty-six, less so short-lived composers like Mozart and Schubert. Igor Stravinsky’s life span (1882-1971) exceeded that of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) by two years. The twentieth century proved even more unstable and violent than the age of the Thirty Years’ War. In Paris in 1915 the 33-year-old Stravinsky posed en dandy for Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942), who had over twenty years earlier painted the classic portrait of the young Marcel Proust. The year before Albert Gleizes (1881-1953) had painted a cubist portrait of him.
Later in life Stravinsky posed for Arnold Newman (1946), George Russell Lynes (1946), Irving Penn (1948), and Richard Avedon (1959), editorial, fashion, and portrait photographers with some pretension to fine art photography, encouraged by publishers like Condé-Nast, who created spare black and white images of the composer which were entirely characteristic of post-war America. He was photographed conducting by Erich Auerbach (1958). Even after death Stravinsky was manifested in the photographs of the solemn funeral cortege of gondolas, led by a standing Russian Orthodox priest and a Roman Catholic acolyte. He enjoyed posing for a likeness, and after his first successes with Diaghilev his public image as conveyed in paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs became essential to him, as much a part of his person as his expensive, meticulously selected clothing.
As for the public, Stravinsky’s fame reached most of them before his music, and many of those had barely heard a note of his music, beyond the bars of The Rite of Spring visualized in Walt Disney’s Fantasia as the conflict of irascible dinosaurs, and magazine and newspaper reproductions of this art remained the first and most vivid impression of the man and his work. One could say that, if Stravinsky was not the last artist to include his own person in his oeuvre, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, he ushered in its last gasp, followed by lesser personages like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe.
This sophisticated public image, typical of the cultural celebrities of the 1920s through the 1950s, hardly encourages accessibility. If Stravinsky made himself fashionable, it essentially created a shell which freed him to write his music as he liked. He managed the trick of cultivating an audience without having to please them. To the contrary, audiences expected his music to be challenging, distant, and prickly. Contrast Sir Edward Elgar, who also had to make a living by his music, whose occasional works—some of them unashamed pot-boilers—inevitably bear his trademark progressions and melodic devices—not to say that Stravinsky didn’t indulge in transformed quotations from the most obviously recognizable parts of Le Sacre. Stravinsky scrupulously avoided having to caricature himself, and when he did compose a pot-boiler, like the “Circus Polka” for Barnum and Bailey, he approached it in his own terms. It is a sign of his seriousness, integrity, and genius that Stravinsky avoided self-parody to the extent he did. The transformation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian nationalist musical imagination from Firebird through Petrushka to the Rite resulted in a revolutionary creation—a work that was truly avant-garde—celebrated as it so ubiquitously has been this year. Thematically and conceptually Stravinsky did in fact follow up on Le Sacre, but not in self-imitation, rather in his painstakingly worked-out and considered Les Noces, which celebrated medieval Russia as the Rite had reincarnated its pagan antiquity. Throughout his long career, Stravinsky, like Joseph Haydn, strove to keep in touch with the latest developments, both in compositional technique and in fashion. Both worked quickly to get themselves to the leading edge, and they mined it more as a source of energy and inspiration than as material to be imitated.
In my preview of Taneyev’s Oresteia, also offered at Bard this summer, I compared Stravinsky’s development to a Russian doll, its carapaces corresponding to the displacements, challenges, and opportunities presented him by twentieth-century war, revolution, and transportation. One might associate them with places—St. Petersburg, Paris, Switzerland, and Los Angeles—or with collaborators—Diaghilev, Cocteau and Gide, Balanchine, and Robert Craft, but the all were characteristically Stravinsky. Given the vicissitudes of his life and his talent for reinventing himself, it is astonishing how consistent he remained for the duration. Stravinsky committed his share of betrayals, yet, when it comes down to his music, no one had more unshakeable integrity.
The 20th Century’s Most Celebrated Composer
Friday, August 9, 8 pm
7:30 pm Preconcert Talk: Leon Botstein
8 pm Performance: Alessio Bax, piano; Andrey Borisenko, bass; John Hancock, baritone; Kiera Duffy, soprano; Gustav Djupsjöbacka, piano; Melis Jaatinen, mezzo-soprano; Anna Polonsky, piano; Mikhail Vekua, tenor; Orion Weiss, piano; Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, choral director; members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Fanfare for a New Theater (1964)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947)
“Gently Little Boat,” from The Rake’s Progress (1948-51) (Auden)
The Owl and the Pussycat (1966) (Lear)
Abraham and Isaac (1962–63)
Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Concerto for Two Pianos (1935)
Les Noces (1913–23)
This opening concert followed the musical path I have just adumbrated in my introduction, although not in chronological order. It began close to the end, then led us backwards and forwards through Stravinsky’s career, back to the 1907 Pastorale, all but juxtaposed with his very last work, his subtle treatment of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhyme, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Of his central—that is, most familiar—oeuvre, Les Noces (1914-17), the Symphonies of Wind Instruments 1920, rev. 1947), and Symphony of Psalms (1930) functioned as sustaining columns in a richly decorated structure. Both the little-heard Concerto for Two Pianos (1935) and his serial Abraham and Isaac (1962–63), challenging to perform and to listen to, are masterpieces as well. There couldn’t have been a better selection to balance out his career and to show much of it at its best. Missing, of course, were the early Diaghilev ballets, but they—at least Le Sacre—arrived in other programs, as did the American works of the 1940s.
“Fanfare for a New Theater,” which lasts slightly over 30 seconds, was written for the opening of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. as exiguous as it is, Stravinsky respectfully followed his discipline in it, adhering to canonic writing and a tone row. He dedicated the work to Lincoln (Kirstein) and George (Balanchine), the Diaghilev and Nijinsky of his later career, giving a personal dimension to this celebration of a notoriously impersonal building.
The Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947) is one of Stravinsky’s better known works, generally in the version he revised in 1947. The primary reason for the revised versions he made in that year was to secure an American copyright, and in some works the revisions are almost negligible. However, the two versions of Symphonies have quite a different rhythmic and structural feel. The early version, which has more of a continuous flow, clearly belongs to the period between Les Noces (and Le Sacre behind it) and neo-classical works like the Concerto for Piano and Winds. In the later version Stravinsky updated the work—economically and brilliantly—to fit in with his severe, aggressively disjointed works of the late 1940s and beyond. This has been extensively discussed in the literature. One might argue that Stravinsky chose to revise this work purposely to mark a change in his style. Maestro Botstein chose to perform this revised version. His sympathy for the music of Stravinsky was immediately apparent in the strength of the performance and in the superb work of the ASO winds. The 1907 Pastorale is an important work for Stravinsky, in that it attracted attention and respect to him within the Rimsky-Korsakov circle and somewhat beyond that. Stravinsky’s American secretary Samuel Dushkin arranged the wordless song for solo violin, and that is how it is usually heard. We were fortunate to hear it as Stravinsky first wrote it, for soprano, sensitively phrased by Kiera Duffy. “Gently Little Boat” showed the continuation of Stravinsky’s intimate song-writing even into the great opera which initiated the last twenty years of his career. His last work was a song, a setting of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” The Finnish pianist and voice teacher Gustav Djupsjöbacka, who made such a strong impression with his sensitive and masterfully judged support of singers, accompanied the American Soprano Kiera Duffy in these songs. Her singing was fluent and nuanced and her voice bright, flexible, and attractive, although her diction in “The Owl…” was so studied as to seem strange, as if English were not her first language, which is not the case. This did not help us to hear the words of this famously incomprehensible ditty.
The idea of setting the original Hebrew text of the story of Abraham and Isaac came from Nicholas Nabokov. I don’t know whether he was also the middleman for the commission from Israel. In any case, Stravinsky dedicated the work to “the People of the new State of Israel” and donated his score to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which, according to the Mayor of Jerusalem who solicited the gift “overlook[ed] the beautiful Byzantine Russian Orthodox Monastery and the eternal hills of the Land of Abraham and Isaac.” Stravinsky’s stark serial setting of Genesis 22: 1-19 is surely one of his great works. His decision to accept Nabokov’s suggestion cost him much trouble, and he approached Sir Isaiah Berlin and others who knew Hebrew, Russian, and English to help him understand the sounds and rhythms of the biblical text. The work’s power as a narrative and realization of the poetic qualities of the language—most evident in the KJV—justify it without the addition of any special interpretations. John Hancock, a big man with an expansive bass-baritone instrument and a mainstay of the Bard Festival for some years, showed the fruit of his own hard work in learning the score. The players from the ASO and Maestro Botstein gave him concentrated support and carried more than their share in telling the story. This was one of several high points in the Festival.
The same musicians, joined by the great Bard Festival Chorus under James Bagwell, gave a broad, steadily paced account of the Symphony of Psalms (1930) one of the touchstones of his mature achievement. Botstein understands and responds to Stravinsky’s sobriety in execution and led an intuitively right performance which made the work all the more moving with its clarity of texture and beautifully shaped phrasing, as well as the clear articulation of the different sections, all clearly demarcated by tempo and meter. The sharp diction and musicality of the chorus was also crucial in the success of the performance.
The great discovery of this concert was the Concerto for Two Pianos (1935), a seldom-played work, like so much of the two-piano repertoire. I think its point of departure must have been the Concerto for Piano and Winds (1923-24). If this seems distant in time, think of the years it took Stravinsky to develop Les Noces after Le Sacre du Printemps. It is hard to imagine how one could improve on the Concerto for Piano and Winds, but it was possible for Stravinsky to refine it and to extend it into other Baroque models. The writing is so well-knit and consistent that one can underestimate the range of his invention in the Baroque and Classical forms he introduces here, including variations and a fugue. In all this he also invents repetitive figurations which echo both Baroque and Romantic piano writing, from Chopin through Rachmaninoff. What a brilliant, subtle, witty piece of work! I rather felt that I and most of the audience were underdressed for this. It should have been performed in a large private room with potted palms suggesting ageing Belle Époque furnishings, and the gentlemen in the audience should have been wearing tails, with the ladies accordingly magnificent. The great husband and wife team, Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky, did full justice to the Concerto’s refinement, although a little more contrast between sections and drama might have been welcome. Stravinsky wrote the Concerto for the Pleyel double piano, an amazing instrument in which two pianos resonated from the same frame and sounding-board. It would be thrilling to hear this work played on one of the few survivors. The instrument really sounds quite different from the two Steinways played by Polonsky and Weiss. Pleyel ceased production of them in the 1920’s, and Stravinsky’s loyalty to them is telling.
Les Noces concluded the program. Another one of Stravinsky’s great works. It would seem to be the comedy—or satyr play—following the tragedy of Le Sacre du Printemps, It was performed by the Ballets Russes in 1923, a full decade after Le Sacre. Once the music gets going it never stops, or even slows down very much. It is gruelling for singers who aren’t native Russian-speakers and who haven’t studied the text and the music thoroughly—and their treacherous shifting accents, a juncture of music and language Stravinsky lavished as much care on as the Hebrew of Abraham and Isaac.
In this hearty celebration of old Christian Russia, a wedding ceremony unfolds, from preparation to completion. The men are jolly enough, mostly because of the alcohol, food, flirting, and dancing, in that order, and the bride laments her coming enslavement to her husband-to-be. Perhaps one has to be Russian to grasp all the humor of it, or at least one has to have a solid, detailed grasp of the language. What strikes one first of all is the astonishing construction of changing sonorities and rhythms Stravinsky has created. If traditional Russian folk instruments are constantly suggested, there is also the persona of the modern machine that remains present throughout. In one of the several scorings Stravinsky made over the long gestation of Les Noces, the piano parts are given to player-pianos. In the final version for four pianos, which was played at Bard, we should not forget that he intended two of the marvellous Pleyel double pianos rather than the four Steinways we heard, which produce a more humane timbre than either a player piano or a Steinway concert grand.
Leon Botstein and his forces served Stravinsky better than well. By taking a slightly slower tempo than many conductors, he gave everyone concerned, including himself, more control, and the many facets of rhythm, language, and texture could emerge. Charles Dutoit adopted a similar approach with the TMC Fellows last year. The Bard Festival Chorus, under James Bagwell, with their crack diction, rhythm, and phrasing made an important contribution. Fortunately, two of the great Russian singers engaged for Taneyev’s Oresteia, Mikhail Vekua and Andrey Borisenko, were still at Bard to take on the tenor and baritone parts. They were absolutely secure in their handling of the music and the text, above all Vekua, whose mastery of this difficult music was so complete, that he seemed simply to be enjoying himself at the wedding feast. It is a pity he wasn’t available for Mavra, which is related to Les Noces in more ways than one might think.
The Bard Festival is known for its rich programming, but this distillation of Stravinsky’s career was epic, as they say in Hollywood. Stravinsky’s life and cultural environment have been studied extensively. There are excellent biographies by Stephen Walsh, Paul Griffiths, and Richard Taruskin, the last of which stresses his compositions. However, a survey like this perfectly programmed opening concert, remind us even more vividly that the life is in the works and the work is the life—or at least should be for us today. The late art historian Konrad Oberhuber, in his seminars on the connoisseurship of drawings, used to stress that the works are the primary document. A survey of the sort presented by this concert—surely the most appropriate way to experience such a sequence of compositions—makes this vivid and real for all in attendance—and that is what the Bard Music Festival is all about.
Who Was Stravinsky?
Saturday, August 10 at 10 am
10 am–noon: Christopher H. Gibbs, moderator; Leon Botstein; Marina Frolova-Walker; Stephen Walsh
The Russian Context
Saturday, August 10 at 1:30 pm
1 pm Preconcert Talk: Marina Frolova-Walker
1:30 pm Performance: Matthew Burns, bass-baritone; Dover Quartet; Gustav Djupsjöbacka, piano; Laura Flax, clarinet; Melis Jaatinen, mezzo-soprano; Piers Lane, piano; Orion Weiss, piano; and others
Mikhail Glinka (1804–57) – Trio Pathetique in D Minor (1832)
Serge Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) – Preludes Op. 23, No. 8 and 9 (1901–03)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) - Faun and Shepherdess, Op. 2 (1906–07)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) - Four Studies, for piano, Op. 7 (1908)
Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) – Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (1914)
Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936) – Five Novelettes, for string quartet, Op. 15 (1886)
Songs and piano works by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–81), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93), Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951), and Mikhail Gnesin (1883–1957)
Igor Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka, for piano solo (1921)
Saturday began with a panel discussion on Stravinsky’s identity, or perhaps better in his case, persona, which is derived from the Latin word for a mask used in theater. The speakers, Leon Botstein, Marina Frolova-Walker and Stephen Walsh all offered valuable observations and intriguing problems to consider. In a few words, I found especially interesting Prof. Frolova-Walker’s point, which she stressed several times, that Stravinsky was not a Russian composer, rather an American one. This becomes clear enough when one considers that the Russians don’t really want to claim him as their own. A notably exception to this is Valery Gergiev, who has conducted Le Sacre often in recent years, notably at the revivals of Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of the original choreography at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. On the other hand, Gergiev’s interpretation of the score, at least when he conducted it at the New York Philharmonic a few years ago, struck me as rather strange. Its heavy rhythms and thick textures seemed a bit forced in their overt Russianness. His early ballets, beginning with the Firebird, were all premiered in France under French conductors with the sharp edges and brilliant clarity of music written for French ears. The Russianness they represent, although they follow the path Rimsky-Korsakov cut, represents Russia for the French and other foreigners. So much for Stravinsky’s Diaghilev persona. A Parisian neo-classical persona followed, a Christian persona, and later a Los Angeles exile persona, a Balanchine persona, a serialist persona, not always identical to his Robert Craft persona, along with the extensive photographic iconography mentioned above. Stravinsky was always fastidious in dress, and this is reflected in the way he presented himself not only in public but to the public. Music-lovers, intellectuals, and the general public were more comfortable with this in the early twentieth century than they have been for over a generation, with our tell-all media.
Taking his point of departure from something like this issue, Leon Botstein observed that he was in many ways an unsympathetic figure. His music was dissonant and challenging; his politics were conservative; he did not make public humanitarian gestures. Like many Russian émigrés of his class and time, he was more concerned with the well-being of himself and his own than with the collective good. Stephen Walsh countered this with a less judgmental assessment, the fruit of his essential two-volume biography of Stravinsky.
A wide-ranging recital followed, beginning with Glinka’s trio for winds and piano (1832), which represented the earliest generation of Russian art music, much in the vein of Hummel and his contemporaries, played with elegance and sympathy by Laura Flax, clarinet, Marc Goldberg, bassoon, and Orion Weiss, who now appears to be a fixture at the Bard Festival, a very welcome one. A long-term favorite at Bard, the Australian virtuoso Piers Lane, then played a couple of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 Preludes with taste, sensitivity, and formidable technique. Weiss returned to play two of Stravinsky’s Etudes, Op. 7 (1908), early student pieces which were mostly unrecognizable in terms of his familiar work. His setting of Pushkin’s poem, “The Faun and the Shepherdess,” (1906-07) was equally immersed in lush fin-de-siècle textures and harmonies. In these earliest efforts by Stravinsky we are still in the Old World of the salon, and the only traits that we would associate with his later work is the economy of his expression and the precision of his sonorities. Melis Jaatinen, the Finnish mezzo who made such an impression with her interpretation of Grieg’s Song Cycle, Haugtussa, at the Sibelius Festival was accompanied by her accompanist of last year, Gustav Djupsjöbacka. This material didn’t give her great scope, and she seemed rather constrained by her fairly advanced pregnancy and possibly the stress of travel. Ms. Melis became somewhat more at ease as the concert progress and on Sunday she came close to her triumph in Haugtussa.
Scriabin and the Russian Silver Age were represented in a short piano work, Vers la Flamme (1914) virtuosically delivered, as always, by Piers Lane.
There seems to be no end to the various approaches Western composers have taken up and combined in expressing their fantasies about places and peoples other than their own. The Five Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15 (1886), which Alexander Glazunov wrote at the age of twenty-one, bring a surprising array of exotic devices and even imitations of exotic styles and instruments into an agreeable salon piece. The first movement hails from Spain, the second is à l’orientale, the third in modo antico, the fourth a waltz, and the finale all’Ungherese. Glazunov was seventeen years older than Stravinsky, and represented for him an outmoded Tchaikovskian element in Russian music that just wouldn’t die. It even survived the deaths of Glazunov and Rachmaninoff to live on in the music of various Soviet stalwarts, including—although with strong irony—that of Shostakovich.
There followed a series of songs, beginning with Tchaikovsky himself in the early 1870s, Mussorgsky (including Varlaam’s Aria from Boris Godunov, solidly sung with broad humor by Matthew Burns), and continuing up to 1913 with Gnesin and Medtner. The concert closed with something more substantial, Stravinsky’s 1921 arrangement of three movements from Petrushka. Piers Lane eschewed the full virtuosic effect at the beginning, adopting tempi, perhaps slightly slower than usual to bring out inner detail and color. With that, his reading was satisfying, and really exciting, as he built up to the conclusion, filling Olin Hall almost to the the splitting point with his enormous sound. This reading may not have had the refinement—a true Stravinskian quality, which went beyond finish and bravura—but it was robust and engaging on its own terms.
Film: The Soldier’s Tale (1984)
Saturday, August 10 at 5 pm
A film by R. O. Blechman, with live musical accompaniment.
I was perhaps in a minority among the audience in not knowing what to expect in R. O. Blechman’s animated film of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. If I had, I wouldn’t have kept my seat from the previous concert, where I was trapped in the middle of a row occupied largely by elderly people who would have tbeen incommoded by a hasty exit. One of my sons was still on picture books at the time, and I remember 1984, the year The Soldier’s Tale was made, as belonging to an especially dismal epoch in the history of books for young children. These products took a preachy turn at the time, flogging a political correctness that their target audience saw through immediately. However, Blechman’s excruciating travesty belonged more to another genre—those precious, faux-naif, faux-chic folios drawn with deliberately crude, inexpressive lines and tinted in pale watercolors, usually with some high literary source or high-brow association in the arts, which were intended to appeal to parents as much as to their precocious children, at least in places like Cambridge, Soho, and Upper Manhattan, and to give them the feeling that they were improving their children’s taste. In any case, nothing could be further from the biting, cynical spirit of Stravinsky’s theatrical work “to be read, played, and danced” to an adaptation by C. F. Ramuz of a Russian folk tale familiar from Afanasyev’s collection. Stravinsky’s Tale has nothing of the storybook in it. What a tale of its time (the final months of the First World War), and a brilliant response to the limited theatrical possibilities available to Stravinsky in wartime Switzerland, where he took refuge from the hostilities! If Blechman’s cartoon version were a book, you wouldn’t get so much as a paper cut from it.
1913: Breakthrough to Fame and Notoriety
Saturday, August 10 at 8 pm
7 pm Preconcert Talk: Michael Beckerman
8 pm: American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – Fireworks (1908)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) – Suite from The Invisible City of Kitezh (c. 1907)
Maximilian Steinberg (1883–1946) – Metamorphosen, Op. 10 (1913)
Anatoly Lyadov (1855–1914) – Fragment from the Apocalypse, Op. 66 (1910–12)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – The Rite of Spring (1913)
The Saturday night orchestral concert closed in on Le Sacre du printemps and the primary influences which led to its creation, above all Stravinsky’s experience as a private pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky’s relationship to Rimsky-Korsakov and his household did not stop with his lessons, which were usually followed by an invitation to dinner. There were also musical soirées of various sorts chez Rimsky and elsewhere. Stravinsky’s family destined him for the law, but it seems he managed to get some musical training as a concession to his willingness to take the path acceptable to his parents. He happened to meet one of Rimsky’s sons, who gave him an introduction to his illustrious father, who advised Stravinsky not to enter a conservatory program, because his limited training would lead him only to frustration. He was willing to critique Stravinsky’s compositions and, significantly for such a conservative character, he did not discourage the young man from pursuing music. Stravinsky became devoted to his master and harbored sufficient affection for his daughter to be deeply wounded when he found that he occupied second place to Maximilian Steinberg, a Jew, whom Rimsky-Korsakov also embraced as a son-in-law. On the other hand this seemed not to have dampened Stravinsky’s affections for his cousin, Yekaterina Nosenko, to whom he remained devoted—in his way—until her death in 1939. They were married in January 1906. His academic-social-familial ties with the Rimsky-Korsakov’s led him into a variety of musical environments, some more, some less sympathetic to the teacher, which can only have opened Stravinsky’s perspective on music, however strong his devotion to his teacher. When Rimsky died suddenly of a heart attack, Stravinsky was devastated, and this seemed both to strengthen his attachment and to give him freedom to move forward on his own.
Fireworks (1908) is still obviously Rimskian, although it already shows Stravinsky’s special focus on timbre and color above harmonic structure—a specialization of his teacher’s technique. The Suite from The Invisible City of Kitezh (edited by Steinberg) showed this clearly enough: Rimsky’s way of establishing a mood and atmosphere through timbre and to dwell in the stasis it created, sometimes in a scenic or meditative way, which hinted at the spirituality of the Silver Age.
Steinberg’s music is almost totally forgotten today. His ballet music, Metamorphoses (1914), performed by the Ballets Russes, first struck me as sensuous and attractive. It was entirely in the Rimsky-Korsakov mode, and it isn’t hard to see why Rimsky preferred Steinberg to Stravinsky. The music quickly cloyed, like sweet vodka. We were to learn more about Stravinsky’s desire to break into Hollywood and to find a position like Korngold’s or Max Steiner’s. but his reputation for difficulty and his integrity and talent for living up to it disqualified him. Steinberg, who, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s protégé, remained a fixture in the Soviet musical world until his death in 1946, would have been ideal for MGM or Selznick. He should have been the one to emigrate to Hollywood. Stravinsky found his strongest support in New York and Boston in the circles of Kirstein, Balanchine, and Koussevitzky.
In any case, we heard carefully rendered, vivid performances of this music under Botstein and the ASO, and of Anatol Lyadov’s Fragment from The Apocalypse, a strange, but sincerely transcendent work, which he was never able to finish. Lyadov’s awe for Rimsky-Korsakov and his alcoholism held him in check. The Fragment is perhaps simpler than it seems and even crude, but its raw enthusiasm—in the Greek sense—makes it powerful, and Botstein and the ASO gave it the respect and musicianship it deserves.
The centerpiece of the weekend was inevitably Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the centenary of which has aroused so much attention this year. Leon Botstein and the ASO were at their best in this. Botstein’s affinity with Stravinsky’s music was evident throughout the festival, but his Sacre was especially masterful. The pulses were steady and powerful. The dynamics were impressive, the orchestral sound both full and clear, with every detail in balance in the splendid acoustics of Sosnoff auditorium. Without going as far in the direction of balletic narrative as Charles Dutoit in his performance of Daphnis et Chloé (and presumably the Sacre) at Tanglewood this summer, Botstein made the sequence of scenes, their meaning, and their contrasts of mood and rhythm eminently clear. If one could imagine a performance by a youngish Klemperer at a time when he was deeply involved with new music, this would be close to it in strength and clarity. The audience received the performance with a long, resounding standing ovation.
The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Stravinsky and Dance
Sunday, August 11 at 10 am
10 am–noon: Kenneth Archer; Lynn Garafola; Millicent Hodson
Sunday, August 11 at 1:30 pm
1 pm Preconcert Talk: Byron Adams
1:30 pm Performance: Alessio Bax, piano; Lucille Chung, piano; Gustav Djupsjöbacka, piano; Kiera Duffy, soprano; Benjamin Fingland, clarinet; Judith Gordon, piano; John Hancock, baritone; Melis Jaatinen, mezzo-soprano; Sharon Roffman, violin; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello; Lance Suzuki, flute; Benjamin Verdery, guitar; Lei Xu, soprano; Bard Festival Chamber Players
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) – Pierrot lunaire (1912)
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) – Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)
Maurice Delage (1879–1961) – Quatre poèmes hindous (1912–13)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – Three Japanese Lyrics (1912)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – Pribaoutki (1914)
Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) – Homenaje, for Guitar
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) – Duo for Violin and Cello
Béla Bartók (1881–1945) – Improvisation
Erik Satie (1866–1925) – Que me font ces vallons (Lamartine)
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) – En blanc et noir (1915)
The most significant works of Stravinsky’s early career were ballets, and it is impossible to understand them or his career without considering dance. Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson reconstructed Nijinsky’s original choreography of the Rite for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, along with Nicolas Roerich’s original costumes and sets. Their production was most recently revived for a centenary series of performances at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées. Sunday morning they presented their work in Olin Hall with slides and videos, along with their similar work on Le rossignol and Perséphone. Over the course of a morning one could not have had a richer or more informative introduction to these ballets.
The afternoon concert present works by contemporary or somewhat older composers which made some significant impression on Stravinsky during the earlier part of his development, that is, during the gestation of Le Sacre du printemps or just after it. Schoenberg and his near contemporaries, Ravel, Delage, de Falla, and Bartók loom large in this context, as well as older composers like Debussy and Satie.
Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire is especially important as the only work by Schoenberg Stravinsky actually heard during this early period of both composers’ careers. He attended the premiere in Berlin and admired it. Soprano Kiera Duffy returned to the stage with a chamber group to take on the wild Sprechstimme part written for the actress Albertine Zehme, who made a practice of poetry recitations with musical accompaniment. Today it is performed both by actresses and by classical singers. Actresses have to have some singing ability, and the singers, usually sopranos, have to be able to abandon some of their classical poise in order to enter into the nightmarish world Schoenberg created around Hartleben’s translation of Giraud’s French original. Zehme herself explained Sprechstimme in this way:
The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…. Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips…We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the “artistic experience in tone” has taught me this fact.2
In a photograph of her with Schoenberg and his musicians, Zehme shows the disturbing, if not frightening grin of a voracious lioness who has just laid eyes on an appetizing prey. Zehme performed the work in a Pierrot costume, which was not only a literal costume, but garb which allowed her to make the extreme gestures and movements required by the heightened expressivity of the voice.
Kiera Duffy arrived on stage wearing an elegant dress which would have graced a garden party in Greenwich (although the bold black or charcoal pattern hinted at something serious) and delicate four-inch heels—not clothing designed to afford her much movement, and in fact she only moved above the waist, and then only the sort of gestures one might encounter in a Strauss or Wolf recital. Her approach never left the safety of traditional classical singing. Even more, every bar became a display of exquisite phrasing and whispered pianissimi. Duffy’s display was impressively crafted, but I’d venture to say that it was entirely wrong for Schoenberg and Pierrot lunaire. There may be different ways to skin a cat, but you do have to skin your cat—preferably one of those strays that haunt Parisian rooftops—not stroke a Persian.
After the intermission, Melis Jaatinen was back in excellent form. Her performance of Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé was sensuous and full of passion and drama. Soprano Lei Xu was also striking in Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous, another touchstone of French exoticism, which she carried on into Stravinsky’s settings of three Japanese poems. John Hancock gave vigorous, large-scale renditions of Pribaoutki. The guitar virtuoso Benjamin Verdery, played de Falla’s Homenaje, for Guitar with a jaw-dropping range of color and nuance. Sharon Roffman, violin, and Raman Ramkrishnan, cello, gave a superb performance of Ravel’s Duo, and pianist Lucille Chung showed confidence and refinement in her playing of Stravinsky, Bartók, Satie, and Debussy. She was congenially joined by Alessio Bax in Debussy’s late En blanc et noir for two pianos.
Sight and Sound: From Abstraction to Surrealism
Sunday, August 11 at 5:30 pm
5 pm Preconcert Talk: Mary Davis
5:30 pm Performance: Anne-Carolyn Bird, soprano; John Hancock, baritone; Melis Jaatinen, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Ann McMahon Quintero, mezzo-soprano; Anna Polonsky, piano; Orion Weiss, piano; members of the american Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director; designed and directed by Anne Patterson
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) – Le travail du peintre, song cycle for voice and piano, Op. 161 (1956)
André Souris (1899–1970)- Choral, marche, et galop (1927)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – Ragtime (1918)
Georges Auric (1899–1983)
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955)
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) – Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921)
Erik Satie (1866–1925) – Parade (1916–17; arr. piano four-hand)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – Mavra (1921-22, rev.1947)
A multimedia event devoted to Les Six, the chic, frothy movement that colored Parisian musical life in the 1920s, closed the first weekend. John Hancock, accompanied by Ann Polonsky, gave a suitably substantial performance of Francis Poulenc’s hommage to a series of modern French painters, Le travail du peintre, a fine example of the composer’s late work. Projections of works by the artists accompanied the performance. Souris’ Choral, marche, et galop and Stravinsky’s sophisticated Ragtime brought in the pop mode that Les Six liked to flirt with. Five of them contributed movements to Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921), a surreal theatrical work, entertainingly presented with a complex program of projections, which didn’t exactly reproduce but generally evoked the impression of the work on stage. In general the effect was appealing, but it’s always problematic when animated digital projections repeat images and combinations. Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky gave a polished, low-key performance of the two-piano version of Satie’s Parade.
The climax of the evening was Stravinsky’s delightful short opera, Mavra (1921-22), which deserves to be performed much more often than it is. It is hardly a minor work, rather an exquisitely crafted, but robust and jolly treatment of a Pushkin tale about Russian village life. Parasha wants to see more of her lover, The Hussar, and is inspired to dress him up as a peasant woman and trick her mother into hiring him as a maid. He is unmasked when the mother finds him shaving. Anne-Carolyn Bird, Melis Jaatinen, Ann McMahon Quintero, and Nicholas Phan contributed spirited, amusing performances in this domestic comedy. Nicholas Phan is one of the most appealing younger tenors among us, and his lyric tenor was flawless some five or six years ago when I heard him sing a recital at Tannery Pond. As his career has developed, he seems to have tried to grow his voice into a larger instrument, with unfortunate results. In recent years many have noted a pinched, strained quality to his voice, and this was the case here. He really should attend to this, or his problems will grow worse. His performance was still engaging enough, and Mavra brought the first weekend to a high-spirited close, with ovations from the audience. Leon Botstein and the ASO provided an energetic, colorful treatment of the important orchestral parts.
to be continued…
- Ross lets Stravinsky off without so much as a hand-slap in the cursory political grilling he gives most composers, especially the Germans—seemingly one his primary criteria in judging a composer’s music and even his importance. Stravinsky’s anti-Semitism, political passivity, and gentle attitude towards Germany, where much of his income was generated, was seriously discussed in the lectures and panel discussions at the Festival. ↩
- Simms, B. R. The Atonal Music of Schoenberg 1908-1923. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 120f.; cited by Eliezer Rapoport, “On the Origins of Schoenberg’s Sprechgesang in Pierrot Lunaire,” Israel Studies in Musicology Online (2006) ↩
Latest posts by Michael Miller (see all)
- Kevin Newbury talks to Michael Miller about his production of Weber’s Euryanthe at Bard Summerscape - July 23, 2014
- John Banville talks to Michael Miller about Love in the Wars, his English adaptation of Kleist’s Penthesilea - July 15, 2014
- Five Memorable Evenings at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival - July 3, 2014