Contemporary Music Review Print



UNC Reexamines Stravinsky

April 28, 2002 - Chapel Hill, NC:


UNC has done a miraculous thingling, as Ogden Nash might have said. There have been some big musical events at the University in the past, of course, and there are likely to be more in the future, but the bar was raised considerably over the weekend of April 26 with a Stravinsky retrospective that involved two concerts and a seminar during which three distinguished scholars cast new light on a composer who is widely viewed as the prime mover of the 20th century. That he spent a lot of time moving was but one of the facts of his life reviewed and reexamined. We tend not to think about Stravinsky being a refugee, but he escaped from Russia and then from France, winding up just down the road from Schoenberg (another displaced person), in LA. The Stravinsky Festival ("Celebrating Stravinsky: A Festival on the Hill") was the product of what many perceive to be a renewed sense of cooperation and mutual support between UNC's musicologists and performers. (For more on this subject, see our News column.) The Stravinsky retrospective was aptly timed, and the music and papers did indeed help facilitate reappraisal of the man and his work.

Ask most music lovers (or critics) about Stravinsky and you are likely to be reminded of the riot that followed the premiere of "The Rite of Spring." Those who know the composer (or think they do) often recite the mantra that he was the most important musical figure of his time, which is to say, of the 20th century. But ask these folks to cite music by Stravinsky that they have heard recently, in concert (or on the radio, or at home), and the results will likely center on a handful of well-known ballets, generally heard but not seen, in the theatre. We've been lucky here, in the Triangle. The Rake's Progress was the first significant operatic production in Fletcher Opera Theater. Carolina Ballet dances Firebird in May. Stravinsky wrote a slew of stuff, and at the Hill we heard samples of his stage works and orchestral, choral, solo vocal, chamber and piano music. The papers, read at a seminar on Saturday, brought out links among and between many Stravinsky scores-and his great indebtedness to other artists, not all of whom were musicians. When we hear the major, well-known pieces out of the context of his life's work, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking they are unique, but the two days of Stravinsky immersion presented at UNC show this not to have been the case. Of course Stravinsky himself (and those who were close to him) helped alter the narrative as his life and work unfolded, and not only in his celebrated Norton Lectures. We are in a new century now, so some reappraisal is in order. UNC helped the reappraisal along handsomely.

The music is the main legacy, and through it the Master's influence lives on. That influence was displayed in remarkable ways during the Festival, which featured fanfares composed in Stravinsky's honor by nine students of UNC's Allen Anderson. These weren't memorial pieces but rather works that celebrated the composer's living legacy. Alas, they were mostly heard in out-of-the-way places. One had to take in the whole weekend and have a bit of luck, too, to catch them all. Two were played at a pre-Festival reception for donors to UNC's scholarship fund. One was given during the first concert. Another was played in the lobby, during the first intermission. Two were heard in Person Recital Hall, during the seminar. The others were played in the lobby of Hill Hall-before the second concert, during its intermission, and at the post-concert reception. A tenth fanfare, by Stravinsky himself, figured in the second program. These brief pieces, for various instrumental combinations, variously led, were important adjuncts to the main body of music performed and discussed. The composers and their works' titles were listed in the program booklet, which was, by UNC standards, lavish if not all-inclusive. For the record, we list the pieces and their composers here in the order in which they were played during the weekend:

Festival Fanfare-Ivy Spera; Fanfare-Enrique Varela; Fanfare for Petrushka -Steve Hatch; Selina's Fanfare-Kent Brooks; Red Fanfare (played by musicians in red shirts)-Matthew Nadler; Una fanfara per Igor-Matthew Fiorentino; Fanfarinski-W. Sands Hobgood; Fanfare-Paul Swartzel; & The Claim-Carla Rascoe.

If these sounded somewhat like Stravinsky, that's understandable. That they didn't all sound like warmed-over Stravinsky was heartening. They merited greater attention than they received; we'd welcome the chance to hear them all again, in Hill Hall. The composers were acknowledged but by and large not formally introduced when their works were played, and as noted it took some doing to hear all the pieces; indeed, we missed one of them, after which we figured out the "system." The directors of these fanfares were Brian K. Doyle, Nathan Hetherington, composer Hobgood, and composition prof Anderson.

After opening remarks and Brooks' fanfare, the first concert began with pianist Brian Smith's rendition of the Chorale in Memory of Debussy, from Symphonies of Wind Instruments . This was a wonderful touch that underscored the rich variety of Stravinsky's work. The original edition of Symphonies , played by members of the UNC Wind Ensemble (with some augmentees) and led by Michael Votta, Jr., followed immediately. As most readers will know, there are multiple editions of many Stravinsky scores, thanks in large measure to the fact that the Soviets paid no heed to his copyrights. In some cases, there's not much difference in the early and late versions, but the second edition of Symphonies , heard on the second night of the Festival, is thicker, denser, less spiky and - based on its equally fine performance (by a raft of distinguished faculty and guest players, who bolstered some advanced students) - many doubtless found the composer's first "take" preferable to the revision. It is too bad that more works could not have been compared and contrasted thusly. Next time?

Stravinsky didn't beat around the bush in his choral music. His Mass, with wind accompaniment, contains the five standard sections but is over in less than 20 minutes, which would surely please those with short attention spans or who pay only token heed to their spirituality. The Carolina Choir sang this extremely well, under Susan Klebanow's leadership. Seven solo vocalists stepped from the ensemble for their various short bits. Balance with the small wind ensemble was excellent.

After an intermission that was extended by a medical emergency in the lobby, the UNC Symphony Orchestra presented the weekend's best-known score, the revised version of Petrushka . Music Director Tonu Kalam has done a remarkable job with this orchestra, which is rebuilt each season as players come and go. That this may have been among the group's finest performances to date there seems to be little doubt. Pianist Sean Gallagher was heard to good advantage in his prominent, quasi-solo role, the winds were particularly strong, the brasses were tamed and civilized (but for the sometimes raucous noises specified by Stravinsky), and the strings sang amiably once they got over some minor ensemble problems at the very outset. Thus the first night ended on a high note with the stage full of players. The wide range of Stravinsky's diverse musical works - and the wide-ranging forces that may realize them - were copiously displayed to the delight of a large and enthusiastic crowd.

The seminar papers probably weren't intended to overlap but wound up doing so nonetheless, to the benefit of the overall proceedings. The talks were given by former UNC professor Glenn Watkins, now at the University of Michigan, Jann Pasler of UC San Diego, and UNC scholar and pianist Thomas Warburton. The seminar's host and organizing genius was Tim Carter, a recent UNC acquisition. The topics covered Stravinsky during the Great War (WWI), his links to the literary world, and the influence of the rest of the world on him. Along the way there were many fascinating glimpses of the evolution of the composer's musical ideas. Stravinsky himself put in an appearance during Pasler's talk, thanks to the screening of a kinescope of the 1962 premiere telecast of The Flood , introduced and conducted by the composer. Some observers noted that this was a fairly bleak, bare-bones experience (and never mind the music...), but we found it strangely compelling and powerful. It may not be the Stravinsky that Stravinsky would have wanted recalled, but it was definitely the Stravinsky those of us of a certain age remember! Warburton's remarks were enlivened by performances of several pieces, including the "Piano-rag-music." He noted the probable influence on Stravinsky of Pathé 78s of rags, cakewalks and such, giving atypical recognition (in the scholarly world) of the importance of recorded music in the overall scheme of things. (Curiously, Stravinsky's own prodigious work in recording studios was only hinted at during the weekend.) The seminar ended with a general discussion to which the distinguished composer T.J. Anderson, who knows a thing or two about ragtime, made many cogent contributions.

The second concert centered on music for smaller groupings, aside from the aforementioned Symphonies performance. UNC Music Department Chair Jim Ketch and his brilliant protégé Kevin Crotty played Stravinsky's own "Fanfare for a New Theatre." After the 1947 version of Symphonies , which Votta again directed, Donald L. Oehler brought the subtle Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo to vivid life. Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang did the same with the strange, also rarely-heard Concerto for Two Solo Pianos. (With scoring - and playing - like that, who needed an orchestra?) The familiar Octet for Wind Instruments and the much-loved "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, both led by Votta, bracketed three virtually unknown Shakespearean songs, composed in LA in 1954. These represented Stravinsky's "serial" period, inspired (one speaker noted) by the death of Schoenberg. No one left humming the tunes, but they're not too far out, and soprano Terry Rhodes (whose commitment to "modern" music is of long standing) sang them beautifully, accompanied by flutist Anne Larson, clarinetist Oehler, and violist Suzanne Rousso. The Octet was brilliantly done by a faculty-student ensemble. Faculty and guests dominated the "Dumbarton Oaks" ensemble, which was altogether splendid and served as a poignant but occasionally optimistic finale for this outstanding reexamination of one of the leading figures of music, not only in the 20th century but for all time.

If UNC's Stravinsky Festival took on the trappings of a variety show, that's understandable, given the rich variety of the material that was presented. We've given short shrift to many of the performers - UNC Chancellor James Moeser, speaking at the opening reception, noted that around 200 people were involved - but overall the performance standards were exceptionally high. There were several unusual things about the two-day event, but the most remarkable is that it happened at all. That it did, and that the readings were so fine, constitute minor miracles. As one guest artist observed, this music is hard - hard for the players and hard, too, for the listeners, even at this remove, 32 years after Stravinsky's death. The accomplishments of the faculty and guest artists may have come as no surprise. The achievements of the many students who were involved was surprising, in a sense, and gives hope for the future. Perhaps, as someone noted, they did it all without realizing just how difficult some of it was - and is. Bravo.