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Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Adés and Anthony Marwood

Los Angeles
The Pompeian Room, Doheny Mansion
02/15/2006 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Suite Italienne
“Song of the Nightingale” and “Chinese March” from The Nightingale, arranged for violin and piano
Duo Concertante (1932)
Berceuse, Scherzo and Prelude et Ronde des Princesses from The Firebird, arranged for violin and piano
“Chanson Russe” (Russian maiden’s song)
“Danse Russe” from Petrushka, arranged for violin and piano

Thomas Adès (piano)
Anthony Marwood (violin)

Thomas Adès, the English composer and pianist who seems to be all the rage just about everywhere, was recently in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He led the orchestra and his friend, violinist Anthony Marwood, in the US premiere of his new Violin Concerto at Disney Hall, in a program that included music from three different versions of “The Tempest”. He played the “Ghost” Trio and the “Trout” Quintet in the Philharmonic Chamber Series. He led the Philharmonic New Music Group in one of their “Green Umbrella” concerts in a program of mostly his own compositions.

In another fascinating and radical program, Adès and Anthony Marwood played a recital of pure Igor Stravinsky in the exquisite “Chamber Music in Historic Sites” series. This unique chamber series is one of the great gifts to classical music in Los Angeles. The presenter hosts imaginative recitals in extraordinary architectural spaces, including musicians ranging from the baroque virtuoso Andrew Manze to the unruly New York string quartet, Ethel. The Stravinsky program took place under the Tiffany glass dome of the cupola of Doheny Mansion, on the Mount St. Mary’s College campus near downtown Los Angeles. The octagonal Pompeian Room boasts a patterned marble floor surrounded by fluted marble columns with gilt Corinthian capitals. The gothic arched windows are framed in carved marble and the walls are covered in a rich fabric. While the architecture may not be refined, it is certainly sumptuous.

The small, exclusive audience was jam-packed with the cognoscenti of the Southern California music scene. Dr. Young Riddle, Music Director the new Los Angles based chamber orchestra, the Nimbus Ensemble, observed that the room was filled with large musical personalities. He thought he could feel the spirit of Stravinsky himself, as well as the oil tycoon Doheny who had owned the mansion. Mark Swed, chief music critic for the Los Angeles Times was sitting in front of us, across the aisle from the venerable writer Alan Rich, of the L.A. Weekly.

The unique program was based on concerts that Stravinsky himself had given, beginning in Milan in 1932, with his friend the violinist Samuel Dushkin. Adès and Marwood plan to give the same recital again in New York and in London, and then to issue a recording. This was certainly an evening of high-powered chamber music that could only be unforgettable. Just to be there felt like a unique privilege, as if we were participating in something historic, amongst a kind of musical royalty. As if Adès and Marwood were playing the French Open of piano and violin recitals, and we had courtside seats at Roland Garos. The music making was definitely world class, if not always to everyone’s taste.

The Introduzione to the Suite Italienne was the epitome of neo-baroque Stravinsky. The piece overall offered a wide variety of musical emotion, taken from selections from the ballet Pulcinella, which was based largely on music by Pergolesi. The Serenata sang like a human voice. The Tarantella was vivacious, overflowing. In the Gavotte, the musicians seemed to tower above us, teeming with youth and modern musical strength. Alongside the other movements, the Scherzino was informal, expressing more drama and a harder, darker tone. The Minuetto e Finale was a formal dance, again both modern and baroque.

The Song of the Nightingale, pared down to violin and piano, seemed not at all Asian, but a western modernist idea inspired by Asia. The song was not evocative, but was a distinctly modern programmatic composition, stripped down and without color, a starkly drawn silhouette. The pizzicati of the Chinese March were more evocative, but still sharply stark, the opposite of Puccini’s Turandot.

The Duo Concertante felt even more strident and modern, with mysterious titles for each movement: Cantiléne, Eclogue I, Eclogue II, Gigue, Dithyrambe. The piano trills in the opening Cantiléne seemed to push forward in history, lighting the way, showing where later composers could go. The first Eclogue was more lyrical, offering a tiny moment that sounded like Debussy, but only a moment. The second Eclogue hinted at dissonance, as if just to acknowledge its existence. The Gigue offered a probing piano against a dancing violin. In the final Dithyrambe, the musicians were blindingly gifted.

After the intermission, the Berceuse from The Firebird could barely awake from a hard-edged, oriental dream. The Scherzo, Prélude, and Ronde des Princesses were brilliantly pure reductions, immediately conjuring comparisons with orchestral versions of The Firebird. Adés took it much faster than most conductors.

In the Divertimento, based on music from Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss, which was in turn based on Tchaikovsky, the musicians were twin suns, blazing and revolving around each other. There were many emotions: cool irony, playful lyricism, and rich, shrieking narrative. In the Danse Russe from Petrushka, you could instantly see the marionette dancing in a crowd onstage. This piece was the most beautiful of the night, the most orchestral and balletic.

Stravinsky soared over an entire century of music. This evening had us all looking up at him, in all of his desolate, diamond-hard beauty. It made me think of the poet Rilke asking, in one of his Elegies: “Why shouldn't more youthful nations rush past the graveyard of cultures long ago rotten? How pitiful it would be if greatness needed the slightest indulgence.” Rilke-like, the greatness of the evening seemed to lie in ambush, and then leap upon us, forcing us to fight for our lives.

Thomas Aujero Small



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