By Ted AYALA
If there was a composer better adapted to turn your proverbial lemons into lemonade than Igor Stravinsky, I’ve yet to hear it. Though a household name and an icon in musical circles of the mid-20th Century, the composer of the “Firebird,” “Rite of Spring” and “Oedipus Rex” struggled to find his footing in the American musical scene when he arrived in the U.S. in the late 1930s as the clouds of war gathered over France where he resided.
Though a prolific composer, audiences generally were only interested in his earlier work, much to the fury of the composer. Because of the copyright laws at the time, performances of his most popular works were not covered under American copyright law, leaving the composer fuming over the lost royalties. Still, he pressed on to make the best of his situation, revising his early works and then insisting that only those versions be allowed for performance, and composing music for all sorts of unorthodox ensembles and commissions. The idea of a Beethoven or Brahms composing music for circus elephants and jazz bands would be hard to imagine. But Stravinsky was no snob and was happy to compose for anyone so long as they paid him.
It was that Stravinsky – the pragmatist – who emerged most forcefully in Pacific Standard Time’s brilliant retrospective of Stravinsky’s work in Los Angeles. Held in the fine acoustics of the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in downtown and curated by Patrick Scott, director of the Jacaranda Ensemble, the concert displayed Stravinsky’s eternally youthful sense of innovation. Whether wrangling with unusual instrumental combinations or reshaping the sounds of earlier works, Stravinsky always managed to create sounds that seem to be not just compelling and right, but fresh and unexpected.
Take his “Three Shakespearean Songs,” for example. Scored for an unlikely group of flute, clarinet, viola and mezzo-soprano, Stravinsky handles the setting with total control and mastery. Never once does one feel that the ensemble is any way a strange combo. On the contrary. Listening to the work, one could never imagine hearing it scored any other way, so perfect are the timbres chosen. Peabody Southwell, who sang here and in the “Four Russian Songs,” was ideal bringing a vividness and even impishness that was completely true to the Stravinsky style.
Opening the second half of the program was another Stravinsky gem, his “Praeludium for Jazz Ensemble.” A very brief work, Stravinsky uses bluesy chords with his usual rhythmic snap to create a miniature masterpiece.
“It’s so short, but you just wish you could hear it on loop for an hour,” said Scott of the work.
Another side, a more introspective view, was afforded by way of his “Three Russian Sacred Choruses.” Throughout his career, a deep vein of Orthodox devotion ran through Stravinsky’s music – and in this work it was distilled to its very essence. There was also more than a hint of melancholy in this music, a longing for the Russia that he left as a young man and would not return to again until 1962, when invited by the USSR Ministry of Culture.
But bringing the program back home was a work that had its roots in Los Angeles. Commissioned by the Ojai Festival, Stravinsky made a masterly set of variations on J. S. Bach’s “Von Himmel Hoch.” Refracting the colors of the baroque through a very modern lens, it was a work that best exemplified Stravinsky’s ability to not only devise new sonorities, but to even fashion the old into something vibrant and new.
The performers, students at the Colburn School of Music, displayed a technique and maturity well beyond their years, and they would be very welcome in the ranks of any professional musical ensemble. The conductors on the program – Mark Alan Hilt, Jack van Geem and Yehuda Gilat – were ideal, infusing Stravinsky’s rhythms with just the right crackle.
It was also fitting that it was young players performing this music – music from a composer whose mind remained ever youthful and always open to new sounds and possibilities.