An out of town visitor always excites interest, even envy, and Philharmonia’s music director and Finnish-born conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s return visit to his former California turf certainly did, and with three programs, including two by former Angeleno Igor Stravinsky this could not be anything but musical heaven, which it mostly was.
Programs B and C were ambitious to a fault, but how could the Philharmonia make a convincing case for pieces written by the same composer over a forty-six year period with their myriad stylistic and technical challenges, and wasn’t Stravinsky the Donald Trump of composers because he always was himself even when he seemed to go “off message”? Stravinsky was continuously re-inventing himself because that’s what Geminis do. He went from Russian folkloric to “neo- classical ” to God forbid “serial”, and he got a lot of flack when he wrote “Agon” ( 1953-57) in the 12-note method invented by his Brentwood, California neighbor and musical nemesis, Arnold Schoenberg.
“Agon” is like a friend turning into someone you knew but don’t want to know now, but Stravinsky being Stravinsky bent the rules in his own favor, The serial portions of “Agon” were sometimes strict and sometimes not, but what matters is how it sounds. Pekka-Salonen’s musicians gave a performance which was even more theatrical than the dance Stravinsky’s most frequent fellow Russian choreographer George Balanchine made to it, and which the San Francisco Ballet performed several years ago with its superb dancers and pit orchestra. This performance was clear as glass, with each choir projecting their consummate strengths, and there’s even a mandolin, which proved that Stravinsky was just as enamored of Italy as Tchaikovksy and the fictional but superbly real Princess Anna Karenina and her lover Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s superlative novel “Anna Karenina.”
Would that Pekka-Salonen and the Philharmonia’s performance of Stravinsky’s deeply influential masterwork “The Rite of Spring” ( 1911-13) was equally successful but Pekka-Salonen micro-managed every moment. Forget the fact that its metre changes frequently, but he seemed to “connect” with all its temporal/timbral shifts in his mind while his body projected possibly accurate but frenetic all over the place gestures.The justly famous opening bassoon solo — marked ” ad. lib ” and “rubato” in the score — sounded like it was played in strict 4/4, but it hardly registered because principal bassoonist Robin O’Neill was parked with the other winds in the back of the stage so he couldn’t be seen, much less heard. Part One — “The Adoration of The Earth” — advanced , sort of, with Pekka-Salonen laying out its harmonies, rhythms,and colors in an almost academic way. The subsequent and concluding Part Two — “The Sacrifice” — sounded far too long and loud like an overwrought Hollywood film score, though the audience jumped to its feet in perfervid approbation.. Maybe Zellerbach’s hard surfaces warred with Pekka-Salonen’s concept? If so, the use of sound panels and a less conventional seating plan could have helped? There have been many great performances/recordings of The Rite. Pierre Monteux, who conducted its “scandalous ” 1913 Paris premiere, can be heard and seen on many versions, from a ’28-29 performance to a fiftieth anniversary live one with the London Symphony done a year before his death — in 1964 — his stick technique firm, but always relaxed — and then there’s the great living Russian conductor Valery Gergiev who coaxes all kinds of sounds only with his hands. So there are many ways to skin this cat.
Pekka-Sakonen and his orchestra were on much firmer ground in their performances of three other seminal Stravinsky. works. His three- movement all in Latin “Symphony of Psalms” (1930) engaged the prodigious gifts of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chorus — Eric Choate, director — the Lund Male Chorus — Andreas Lonnqvist –director — and the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco — Susan McMane -director. Jonathan Cross’ program essay ” Telling Tales ” put forth various theories explaining Stravinsky”s “alienated” shape-shifting Paris, Switzerland, and Los Angeles-based career as if he were determined to sever his Russian roots, which may in many ways be true though ” Print the legend ” as they say in Hollywood, could be closer to the truth. But all that matters is the sound, not where it came from, or what it “means” and that sound was precise,clear, full- bodied, and deeply moving. Stravinsky may have worn one of his many masks here, but you still got to see that “human all too human” face, in Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase,behind it.
That mask was put on and off in “Oedipus Rex,” which Stravinsky wrote from Jean Cocteau’s book. The composer’s two-act all in Latin opera-oratorio of the same name which he wrote in 1926-27 is as ritualistic and severe as his “Symphony of Psalms.” But how could this ancient horror story be otherwise? Who is responsible for murder and who’s blinded literally and figuratively by the truth? Oedipus ( tenor Nicholas Phan ), his mother Jocasta ( mezzo soprano Michelle De Young ), and King Creon,( baritone Hadleigh Adams ) who also sings the parts of the blind seer Tiresias and the Messenger says what really happened in plague-ravaged Thebes, with tenor Thomas Glenn as the Shepherd. Everyone was dressed in “French” unmatched business suits ala Cocteau and someone has to come and save the day, but who? Stravinsky kept us on the edge of our seats, His ultra florid vocal writing for Oedipus and Jocasta is over the top like a perverse “Liebestod”. Phan, De Young. Adams, Glenn, and the narrator have very different parts, but Pekka-Salonen and his orchestra were everywhere balanced. This is a butch take on a very male vs. female story — and Salonen’s orchestra held their own against all odds. Actor Carl Lumly, who served as narrator for the over scheduled Peter Coyote, was a brilliant fill in for Coyote whose admittedly distinctive but dry voice, would have been OK, but certainly lacking in the heft, and dare we say it gravitas ? that this role calls for because Oedipus Rex is about the tragedy of sex gone terribly wrong.
And then there was Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” (1920 ) which he wrote as a memory piece for his dear friend Debussy who supported him before, during and perhaps a bit after his embattled “Le Sacre.” Each melody super posed over the next. Each color, each moment strong, excited poised, on the edge or before of — what’s still to come.
Actor Carl Lumbly, who served as narrator for the overbooked Peter Coyote, was a brilliant fill in for the distinctive yet dry voiced Coyote, and Lumbly’s low but commanding tone added real gravitas to this tale of love gone terribly wrong.
8 — 16.x.16
C 2016 MICHAEL MCDONAGH