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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Stravinsky and His World

IF YOU CAN DEVOTE but one day to a Bard Summerscape composer series, you should go whole hog. A Saturday, for example, starts with a 10 AM talk, and breaks in time for you to nibble the lunch you packed on the pleasant lawn. At 1 PM there’s a pre-concert talk, followed by a chamber-music performance guaranteed to give more variety than anything in a standard concert series.

Leon Botstein and the ASO
The hamlet of Tivoli beckons after that, with enough choice of restaurant that you’ll be recharged in time for the 7 PM lecture that prepares you for the evening’s orchestral event. Series organizer, conductor, speaker (and Bard president) Leon Botstein believes that it’s part of the Academy’s responsibility to present music and ideas you won’t easily encounter elsewhere, so prepare to engage and be engaged for a very long day.

Last Saturday offered just such a scenario, but one that I feared would be excessive even for die-hard me. I left the evening concert just as a showing of the Alain Resnais movie “Night and Fog” was getting underway (at 10:15 PM), because I feared it would postpone my departure until nearly midnight, and it’s a long drive home, and I had to pack for a trip ... anyway. Only later did I discover the film is a half-hour long. I would’ve stayed!

Hanns Eisler, a Stravinsky contemporary, wrote the film score, which was played by the American Symphony during the film. Unlike Stravinsky, Eisler was politically outspoken, and got the boot from HUAC in 1948. Bernstein and Copland made public statements on Eisler’s behalf; Stravinsky did not. What was his attitude towards and relationship with repressive regimes?

That was the topic of the morning’s seminar, in which moderator Tamara Levitz led a panel of renowned academics through a course that only underscored Stravinsky’s distance, despite his ability to shuttle between Mussolini and Roosevelt and, later, Kennedy and Kruschev, memorably characterizing the reason for his appearance with the last-named by saying, “I was drunk.”

As will happen when professors convene, the topic reshaped itself into an examination of the writings of Theodor Adorno, which remain controversial enough to still provoke some entertaining sniping. Tomi Mäkelä, who was a charming presence at Bard’s Sibelius fest, has lost none of that charm; Prokofiev expert Simon Morrison was icily reserved, and NYU’s Michael Beckerman, a last-minute replacement, was far and away the most dynamic and entertaining of the lot, even deftly working in a Jim Carrey reference at one point.

You’re not easily going to find performances of Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds outside of academic settings, so I welcomed my first opportunity to enjoy a old favorite in person. It capped the afternoon’s chamber-music portion, devoted to the Neo-Classical wave that informed the music of Paris in the 1920s.

Limitations are but the bounding boxes in which creativity can grow; in “Les cinq doigts,” a set of eight miniatures in which the right hand rarely strays from the same five notes, Stravinsky starts us with the first notes of the C Major scale and, later in the series, wanders into more modal territory. Anna Polonsky polished each piece like a gem, then returned with Randolph Bowman to give a deft performance of Alexandre Tansman’s Poulenc-esque Flute Sonata from 1925.

After the Octet, Martinů’s String Quartet No. 4 was the highlight. You can ascribe its often episodic nature to a Stravinsky influence, but Martinů has such a solid identity of his own that he must have drawn from a huge range of influence – added to which, his pearly sense of humor also came shining through. Violinists Harumi Rhodes and Sharon Roffman, violist Marka Gustavsson and cellist Robert Martin were the players. A variety of works by Roussel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky knockoff Arthur Lourié completed the bill.

Moving from Stravinsky’s 1936 “Jeu de cartes” to the “Requiem Canticles,” written toward the end of his life in 1966, was a profound journey, and Botstein and the American Symphony fully, insightfully inhabited the trip. The earlier piece, a Balanchine commission, has a merry Rossini feel (complete with sly quotes); although the surly Anna Kisselgoff declared it “undanceable,” the music sparkles with rhythm and wit.

The nine brief sections of “Requiem Canticles,” by contrast, are compelling in their spareness, a summation of sorts of the composer’s many styles, a shrewd use of serialism among them. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle and bass-baritone John Relyea had little to do, but they did it well.

Other Stravinsky works were his Symphony in Three Movements, with its amazing changes of texture throughout, “Ode,” a 1943 piece using material intended for a film and his orchestration of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” during which we were respectfully asked not to sing.

Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, Op. 39, gave us an early dose of the serialism that would be balanced by Stravinsky’s use of the technique. With cantor Erik Contzius skillfully intoning the rhythm-specific text, the Bard Festival Chorus and the American Symphony reminded us how masterful this little-appreciated music can be. But that’s the whole point of the Festival, and once again they did it exceedingly well.

Stravinsky and His World
American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, conductor
Bard Summerscape, Aug. 17

Metroland Magazine, 22 August 2013

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