Stravinsky festival, January 23, 2010

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra(1), Minnesota Orchestra(2) / Roberto Abbado
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella(1), Firebird(2)

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concluded their month-long series of concerts featuring the work of Igor Stravinsky with a rare double-bill by the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra, both conducted by Roberto Abbado.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (ballet music, 1920 edition)
The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev wanted to stage a ballet based on eighteenth-century Italian “Commedia dell’arte” music, which was originally attributed to the composer Giovanni Pergolesi but has since proved spurious.  Stravinsky is said to have disliked the idea until after he saw the music in question.  What followed—and what was charmingly and capably delivered by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—are melodies and themes liberally spiced with rhythms and orchestration that echo the original Italian flavor but mirror a sort of early 20th century neo-Classical style of composition.  Tenor Joseph Kaiser may have been the most impressive of the three excellent soloists, having to deliver Stravinsky’s difficult text with aplomb.

But the big draw on this evening was one of Stravinsky’s greatest orchestral showpieces.

Stravinsky: The Firebird (ballet music, complete 1910 edition)
A stage change pushed the Minnesota Orchestra back to the front edge of the orchestra shell, leaving a good 30 feet between Abbado and the front row of the center section seating, which was unavoidable given the sheer number of musicians on-stage.  (The Ordway’s new, narrow ‘thrust’ stage puts the much smaller SPCO closer to the audience.)

The Orchestra did magnificent justice to Stravinsky’s musical genius on Saturday evening and proved that an excellently-recorded CD is still no match for attending live concerts, especially with as much air as the Minnesota’s double basses, percussion, and brass were moving.  In particular, the orchestra handled beautifully Stravinsky’s difficult rhythms and colorfully orchestrated segments, elements that later became more evident in The Rite of Spring in 1913.

The Firebird offers a gorgeous and deeply colorful mixture of Russian and French impressionism that was not often equaled by other early 20th-century composers; Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is probably the closest comparison, especially considering how Stravinsky and Ravel flavored their respective pieces not just with extra percussion but also with multiple harps and celesta.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Stravinsky had declared Ravel’s 1909 Daphnis et Chloe suite “one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”  Not at all coincidentally, both The Firebird and Daphnis were composed for productions by the impresario Diaghilev.

As can happen with live performances, a few minor glitches occurred on Saturday; twice principal cellist Anthony Ross played his solo in the “Princesses’ khorovod” (a round) with excessive glissando and rubbery phrasing that clashed with the mood and with the bassoon part that follows.  The only other unexpected event was an accidental extra blast from the bass drum during the “Infernal Dance.”

Otherwise, the orchestra “told” the entire Firebird story with rapturous effect in part because Abbado programmed the complete 1910 ballet music instead of Stravinsky’s abridged and stripped-down Firebird Suite from 1919; the incidental and passing music between the major sections is essential to conveying the color and mood of the story.

Three trumpets (including Chuck Lazarus) played through open doors from just off-stage during the “Magic carillon,” giving it a deliciously spooky effect.  And just as the Minnesota played the “Infernal Dance” to wonderfully vicious and spasmodic effect, they were positively sublime in the “Berceuse”—the violins, playing con sordini (with muted strings), absolutely shimmered during the final portion of the “Cradle song.” Abbado ably coaxed the necessary galloping from the winds and brass in “Kaschei’s Awakening” and, perhaps to help us savor the moment, slowed down the “deep shadows” leading to principal horn Michael Gast’s gorgeously gentle solo that touched off the majestic conclusion. The final seven chords were spine-tingling.

The Ordway audience knew exactly what they got on this Saturday evening—an exhilarating, swirling-and-diving flight through one of the very best 20th century orchestral works—and called Abbado back to the stage for four rounds of applause during their standing ovation.  This was a magnificent delivery of musicianship, one we might possibly remember as fondly as Osmo Vänskä’s special Orchestra Hall concert with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra on January 25, 2005.


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