By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – Esa-Pekka Salonen’s laconic tweet said it all – “Stravinsky time.” Indeed, for two spring weekends, starting on April 12, Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are playing nothing but the music of one of the city’s most distinguished and productive musical citizens.
Stravinsky lived in the Hollywood Hills above the Sunset Strip for 28 years – almost as long as Schubert was alive. Many of his greatest works were written there, and it was where he made the transition from his long neo-classical period to a gradual embrace of the serial methods of crosstown rival Arnold Schoenberg. Many of Stravinsky’s landmark recordings of his own music were made in the American Legion Hall Post 43 on Highland Avenue, just a short walk from Hollywood Bowl.
But Los Angeles is not a city that makes a habit of honoring its past. No markers or plaques adorn the two houses at 1260 and 1219 N. Wetherly Drive where Stravinsky lived. Although there is a Beethoven Street elsewhere in the city, there is no Stravinsky Drive – or Stravinsky anything – here.
This would be Salonen’s second local Stravinsky festival; the first occurred in 2001 when the LA Phil was still housed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. As I recall, the earlier concerts at that festival were sparsely attended, but when word got out through the media that something special was happening, attendance grew and the last concert attracted a sold-out house. This time, Walt Disney Concert Hall looked virtually full on opening night (April 12), and Salonen was greeted with a returning hero’s welcome.
Salonen’s prowess as a programmer grew tremendously during his years as the LA Phil’s music director and only accelerated after he left; almost everything he has come up with as the LA Phil’s conductor laureate has turned out to be an event. Unlike the 2001 festival, which scattered nearly 60 years of Stravinskyana among four programs, Salonen’s 2019 sequel was neatly divided into three coherent thematic packages – Rituals, Faith, and Myths.
Rituals on opening night turned out to be a convenient peg on which to hang the Phil’s first performance of probably the biggest musicological find of the 21st century so far, Funeral Song. The story is familiar by now: The young Stravinsky’s memorial score for his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was given one performance in 1909, then was buried in the St. Petersburg Conservatory archives for over a century until it was accidentally stumbled upon during a renovation of the building in 2015. The parts were assembled into a full score, and Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra played it in December 2016 with music enthusiasts watching on medici.tv. (See the replay below.) Performances around the world swiftly followed, two recordings conducted by Riccardo Chailly in Lucerne (Decca) and Gustavo Gimeno in Luxembourg (PentaTone) came out, and Funeral Song was on its way into the repertoire.
Yet Salonen’s extraordinarily knowing performance of Funeral Song on April 12 was the first one in my experience that really brought the piece into focus. In the earlier renderings, Stravinsky came off as a lost soul temporarily derailed by grief, the rapid development from Scherzo fantastique to The Firebird interrupted by drift and uncertainty. But Salonen found a steady linear narrative in the piece, building toward smashing climaxes and producing suspense in the piece’s center. The first few measures, which explicitly predict the opening of The Firebird, made a shuddering, frightening sound deep in the bass, and the strings mourned mightily soon thereafter. Even though it remains a piece by an as-yet partially formed musical personality, with Wagner as the most easily detectable influence, Funeral Song’s full expressive stature was revealed at last.
Next, Salonen whizzed ahead into the 20th century with Stravinsky’s last ballet, Agon, written in the Hollywood Hills and still not played as often as it should be. From the vantage point of a seat in Orchestra Level 3, one could see and hear Agon as a series of chamber pieces distributed among various tiny sections of the orchestra. The Webern influence was very clearly in play, especially in a passage for violin, harp, and mandolin. Salonen also exploited a rich vein of Stravinsky wit in parts of the score, the music bouncing and dancing playfully about. His fast tempo in the opening seemed to fluster the LA Phil – as it did in 2001 – but his old band quickly recovered its bearings.
Los Angeles has experienced Salonen’s fire-breathing way with The Rite of Spring many, many times by now – the very first concert in Disney Hall in 2003 featured the Rite – but it hasn’t worn out its welcome at all. Salonen still buys into the composer’s own highly rhythmic, ferocious conception, and this was one of his best Rites yet – definitely a touch or two slower in some stretches than in Salonen’s own performances and recordings, yet with all of the bite and roaring, rolling, brash energy of past renditions intact. The LA Phil plays this once fearsomely difficult score as if it were a cakewalk in Griffith Park, reaching deep down into its Stravinsky taproots and unleashing massive yet precisely detailed cataclysms and broodings.
Next in Salonen’s 2019 Stravinsky celebration came a program (April 14) of of rarely performed sacred works written in Los Angeles. The final concerts (April 18-20) will contain two large-scale pieces based upon Greek myths. Watch this space …
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.