For many years in the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky was the most famous living composer in the United States. His music, however, was not as famous as he was. Beyond “The Firebird,” “Petrouchka,” and “The Rite of Spring” — three of the ballets he wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the century’s second decade — many audiences would be hard-pressed to name another work, beyond, perhaps, his 1951 opera “The Rake’s Progress.”
Yet “The Stravinsky Project,” a multi-part, multi-venue festival offered by the Post-Classical Ensemble, Strathmore, Georgetown University, and the National Gallery this past weekend, was not simply about getting audiences better acquainted with the music of a composer who lived longer in America than he did anywhere else. Rather, the aim — articulated by Joseph Horowitz, the erudite writer who is one of the Post-Classical Ensemble’s founders — was to establish the fundamental Russian-ness of a composer who has long been thought of as the ultimate cosmopolitan. This goal was emphasized by the festival’s first concert, called “Stravinsky’s Russian Accent,” at Strathmore on Friday night.
This idea is pleasantly titillating to some, but it’s not actually all that new. It reflects a current trend in Stravinsky scholarship, spearheaded by the brilliant musicologist Richard Taruskin, an expert in all things Russian, who pointed out that the so-called octatonic scale frequently used by the composer — a scale alternating whole and half steps — was a hallmark of much Russian music, including Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.
And the Post-Classical Ensemble is hardly leading the investigation. Horowitz, a tenacious thinker who tends to keep mining his ideas assiduously once he’s gotten hold of them, has been doing projects on “The Russian Stravinsky” since at least 1994, when he curated a series of that name with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. “The Russian Stravinsky” was also the title of a three-week festival the New York Philharmonic hosted last year, at which Horowitz presided over a multimedia event involving films and a panel discussion, not unlike some of what was offered over three days around Washington this weekend.
Angel Gil-Ordonez, Horowitz’s partner in founding and leading the Post-Classical Ensemble, led a concert Friday that unintentionally highlighted another reason some of the music is unfamiliar: It’s not written for usual ensembles. The three works on Friday’s program called for a wind ensemble, percussionists, a chorus, and four piano soloists — making it a concert that would be expensive for your average orchestra to put on (though the individual works do sometimes make appearances on orchestral programs). The only strings on the entire program were three basses in the Concerto for Piano and Winds, offering a resonant dark anchor to the higher-pitched activity of the winds and the effusive soloist, Alexander Toradze.
Though the festival’s claims were large, its musical focus was relatively narrow: Rather than surveying Stravinsky’s whole career, the works on Friday’s concert were all written in the early 1920s. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when the works are so strong. Call them Russian or what you will, the pieces combined into a spare definite portrait, hitting the ear with sharp bursts of keenness like gusts of cold wind in the sunlight, keeping a listener slightly on edge in a state of hyperawareness.
“Neoclassical,” rather than “Russian,” is the usual epithet for Stravinsky’s oeuvre from the 1920s to the 1950s. The two terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the performers Friday night certainly worked to get away from the kind of cool abstraction that neoclassicism implies. “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” is a classic neoclassical Stravinsky piece, beautifully balanced, written in honor of Debussy, and described by the composer himself as a pure abstraction. Horowitz’s argument is that the piece actually reveals similarities to Russian liturgical music; this may be structurally true but is not evident apart, perhaps, from some of the regular tread of the underlying rhythms, especially toward the end of the work.
More emotive, though, was Toradze’s charismatic reading of the piano concerto, in which the piano’s entrance is a signal for all hell to break loose, with the winds emitting sharp bird-like yawps of sympathy that drowned out some of the piano’s jagged chords altogether. The performance certainly made a case for this as vital, Russian, heart-on-the-sleeve music, answering inwardly thoughtful passages such as the second-movement piano solo with the warped, dance-like rhythms of the third, sometimes subsiding into a pattern like a heartbeat, keeping the music alive.
However Russian Stravinsky’s oeuvre may be in general, no one will argue about the Russian-ness of “Les Noces.” Written as a ballet, for chorus, percussion, and four pianos, this is a ritualistic presentation of a village wedding; the Washington Bach Consort Chorus and four soloists (especially Aleksey Bogdanov) did an admirable job of conveying the raw, folk elements of this music, rather than prettifying it, while the percussion and piano intensified the harshness without any mitigating strings to cushion the ear. The effect is not unlike a “Rite of Spring” for vocalists. The contrast was brought home with an excerpt of a four-piano arrangement of “Rite” itself, presented exhilaratingly as a scheduled encore.