By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – An article in the Centennial Spotlight section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s April program book calls Esa-Pekka Salonen “one of the world’s great Stravinsky conductors.” When you’re in music journalism, you learn to take over-the-top hype in stride. But after hearing all of his Stravinsky recordings and attending most of his Stravinsky performances in Los Angeles, I believe that Salonen really is one of the world’s great Stravinsky conductors. A cool, precise modernist with a sardonic sense of humor who can also whip things into a frenzy when needed, Salonen has always been a great fit for Stravinsky. In certain pieces, among them Oedipus Rex, Orpheus, Cantata, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments, there is no one better.
Fortunately, Cantata and Orpheus – neither of which is part of the everyday repertoire – were on the menus for the second and third programs of Salonen’s two weekends of all-Stravinsky concerts with the LA Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The second concert, Faith (April 14), contained a cross-section of short sacred works and elegies from Stravinsky’s final two decades in Los Angeles, while the third, Myths (Apr. 18), juxtaposed two big theater works based on Greek mythology that take place in Hades and on the Earth’s surface. (Salonen led similar all-Stravinsky programs on religion and myth with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2016; see video atop this article.)
Salonen came up with a dandy solution to the problem of fusing pieces with vastly differing instrumentations and relationships to tonality in Faith. There were no pauses during the 80 minutes of music; between each piece, the percussionists produced quiet, rolling, whooshing sounds on gongs, cymbals, and bells. Salonen used these interludes to roam among the various ensembles scattered around and above the Disney Hall stage, leading each in turn. This was not so much a concert as it was a ritual – a beautiful, solemn, even timeless ritual where ancient religious traditions met the mid-20th century avant-garde in a darkened digital-age concert hall.
If there is a single word that can describe much of late Stravinsky, it is “compression” – distilling ideas down to as few notes, however complex in organization, as possible. Requiem Canticles (Stravinsky’s next-to-last original work and the piece that he requested to be played at his funeral) and his Mass (which doesn’t technically qualify as a late work, though its terseness anticipates things to come) are examples of compression in action. The former takes less than 15 minutes to perform, the latter only 18. The three elegies to famous people whom Stravinsky met – In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, Introitus: T.S. Eliot in Memoriam, and Elegy for J.F.K. – are much tinier and tougher to penetrate. The last, which the octogenarian composer wrote as a reminder to keep President Kennedy’s assassination from ever being forgotten, uses just three clarinets to punctuate the serial-derived vocal line of a mezzo-soprano (Kelley O’Connor), all stationed in the Disney Hall organ loft.
Following these somewhat closed-in pieces, Salonen let some light into his Sunday afternoon service with the invigorating, intricate, peaceful neo-baroque Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her.” Finally, there was the 1952 Cantata, a hidden gem in Stravinsky’s catalogue where a delectable dirge alternates four times with long-limbed solo vocal lines for soprano (Heidi Stober) and tenor (Andrew Staples) that amount to stepping stones toward Stravinsky’s full embrace of serialism. Salonen kept it all moving along with fluid eloquence, and the dirge’s tune haunted us all the way back to the parking lot and home.
April 18 was Greeks in the Underworld Night, a coupling of the 1947 ballet Orpheus with the 1934 theater piece Perséphone. First came Orpheus, whose quiet opening, featuring a harpist representing the ancient lyre virtuoso, creates a wonderfully languid, introspective atmosphere. Salonen nailed the piece as expected, getting an ideally lean, transparent, neoclassical texture with just enough warmth and a solid bottom, dealing as adeptly with limpid, sustained lines as with outbursts of sharp, visceral rhythm. The sound in Disney Hall was even more vivid than usual, probably owing to the replacement of rear orchestra seats by a solid, wood-surfaced wall, but also because Stravinsky’s pinging edges are a good match with the hall’s acoustical properties.
Formerly a neglected problem child, Perséphone has been gaining attention on the West Coast over the past few years with performances in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Salonen led it at his first L.A. Stravinsky Festival in 2001, with Perséphone’s part spoken in a jarring English translation. But this time, the narration was thankfully done in the original French. And Salonen’s perennial co-conspirator Peter Sellars was in on the action.
Of course, Sellars had an agenda. In a pre-concert talk, an article in the program, and press interviews, Sellars was all over the place, claiming that Stravinsky’s real motive for his relatively lyrical, very French-sounding score was a reflection of his hidden homesickness for Russia and his horror of what was happening there during Stalin’s reign of terror. In librettist André Gide’s poem, Perséphone journeys to Hades out of compassion for the poor souls trapped there, so Sellars hypothesized that Stravinsky – then comfortably exiled in Paris – longed to visit the Soviet Union to see the misery for himself but couldn’t. There is no proof of this; Stravinsky never said anything about it, which Sellars admits. But hey, let’s assume this is true for the purposes of Sellars’ followup brainstorm, that Perséphone’s journey could also have been to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period, a hell on Earth if there ever was one.
Thus the Sellars Perséphone, in which the speaking role of Perséphone was doubled by a Cambodian dancer (Sam Sathya) and three others from Amrita Performing Arts, Cambodia, slowly and gracefully maintained their national dance tradition against the sometimes snappy rhythmic thrust of Stravinsky’s music. They silently acted out the story while Cécilia Tsan (better known here as a first-call concert and studio cellist) delivered Perséphone’s text in an earthier voice than past Perséphones have, heavily amplified. Tenor Paul Groves sang the part of the white-clad Eumolpe while leaning on a metal staff, sounding a bit strident at times.
Elsewhere, Sellars gave his well-worn staging gimmicks another go – the Master Chorale seated in a row of chairs against the back wall, wearing proletarian blue jeans, barefoot, making massed arm gestures, the usual shtick. Fortunately, this didn’t interfere with Salonen’s searching, leisurely (in line with the composer’s two recordings) conducting, which awakened with a rumbling vitality in Part II when Stravinsky reverts to a restless neoclassical mode. You can’t lose in Stravinsky with Salonen on the podium, and he just gets better and better at it with age.
For what it’s worth dept.: The Stravinsky home on 1260 N. Wetherly Drive above the Sunset Strip in the Hollywood Hills is up for sale at a reduced price of $3.495 million. Not long ago, there was a half-hearted campaign on social media urging a consortium of music lovers to pitch in and buy the house for use as a workshop space for musicians, but that doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. Salonen himself once thought of buying the house in 1996 but got spooked by the thought of trying to write music in the same space as the master. I say he should have gone for it – especially since the price has gone up sevenfold since ’96.
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.