THE BOSTON Symphony Orchestra is coming to town next Saturday night to play an all-Stravinsky concert. Music director Seiji Ozawa has chosen three works for the program: Olde; the Violin Concerto; and Le Sacre du Printemps.
There is a strange and revealing history connected to both the orchestra and the choice of program -- a story that shows how much the American cultural climate has changed in 28 years.
It was in December of 1951 that the Boston Symphony was coming to town, with Pierre Monteux as its guest conductor. In those days orchestral conductors and their managers generally held the view that culture stopped once you got south of New York City, The Philadelphia Orchestra moved the line 90 miles south; but it, too, joined in the opinion that Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and similar cities were strictly rustic provinces when it came to musical taste.
And so it happened in that far-off December week that Pierre Monteux had announced performances of Le Sacre du Printemps for Boston, for New York City, and -- may we say? -- even for Brooklyn. But for his Washington program he announced a switch from the notorious Stravinsky score to Debussy's presumably safer La Mer.
It seemed to me that there was something wrong with the obvious reasoning that Washington music-lovers and admires of the Boston Symphony Orchestra would not be up to the Sacre. It also seemed that some inquiry ought to be made.
So I telephones to Tod Perry, the Boston Symphony's manager. Pointing out that it was after all Monteux who had conducted the world premiere of Sacre in Paris on that historic May day in 1913, I wondered if Le Maitre might not be induced to include it in his Washington program -- as he was doing in Boston, New York and Brooklyn.
It was not as if Washington had not heard Le Sacre. Stokowski had conducted it here with the Philadelphia some seasons earlir. But Monteux was, after all, the work's godfather -- a role he also had assumed for Petrouchka and The Nightingale. He was also the first man to conduct Petrouchka and Le Sacre in concerts outside of Russia.
Stravinsky had written to Monteux a year after the Sacre premiere saying, "Mon cher Monteux, I am very happy to be able to express my appreciation of your performances last season with the Ballets Russes. Everyone can appreciate, as I do, your enthusiasm and integrity with regardto contemporary music in all of its diverse tendencies, which you have defended at every opportunity. . . . I attach the greatest importance to the dedicated and meticulous collaboration of the remarkable musicians who support you so intelligently in the interpretation of compositions which I know to be extremely difficult."
Putting it straight out to Perry, I said that it seemed unfair to deny to Washington what was thought good enough for Brooklyn (without in the least suggesting that Debussy's great score was also something quite special). The general manager said that Monteux was at that moment conducting a Friday afternoon matinee, but that he would ask him about it as soon as the concert was over. An hour later, he called back to say that Monteux was delighted to be asked to conduct Le Sacre in Washington and would change the program accordingly. c
In 1951 there were those in the audience, as there might be today, who booed when it was announced from the Constitution Hall stage that LeSacre would replace the Debussy. But there was no question of the mounting excitement in the audience as Monteux took the great orchestra through the historic music.
Monteux was a rather short, stocky man with a full mustache of which he was very proud. His conducting technique was as strictly disciplined as the famous Fritz Reiner's. Without the slightest hint of rigidity, Monteux did not move about on the podium while he was conducting. Even in the most frnetic moments of the incredibly complex score, he led the orchestra with the smallest movements of his fingers. These and his eyes were his sharpest tools. The eyes darted around the orchestra, flashing messages, carrying signals, and reflecting his pleasure or the opposite, depending on how things were going. That day they went surpassingly well. When the Sacre was over, the audience put on a demonstration that lasted for about 15 minutes -- one which, by the way, gave the Boston visitors a different slant on Washington as a musical city.
Monteux had been the Boston's music director for four years, just prior to the accession of Serge Koussevitzky to that eminent spot. Throughout his years as its conductor and guest leader, there was always a special rapport between the witty Frenchman and his Boston colleagues.
Today Le Sacre has become one of the standard works in the repertoire of every major orchestra, and its challenges -- though no longer strange to today's musicians -- are always a test. Its facination today remains as strong as ever, with shifting emphases on rhythm, harmony and melody. It is still good to recall Stravinsky's comment a day or two before its premiere: "At times the dynamic power of the orchestra is more important than the melodic line itself."
If Le Sacre is one of Stravinsky's best known works, his Odeis one of the least-often heard of all the orchestral compositions. It was commissioned in 1943 by Serge Koussevitzky in memory of his first wife, Natalie. The Olde is in three parts -- Eulogy, Eclogue and Epitaph.
The history of the Eclogue gives a glimpse of some of Stravinsky's working methods. In the months before receiving the Koussevitzky commission, Stravinsky had been planning to write a complete score for Orson Welles' film, "Jane Eyre." For various reasons he abandoned that project. But he kept an episode he had composed for a hunting scene. Like most composers, Stravinsky never threw away a good idea, knowing that some use for it would always turn up. What was once the hunting-scene music is now supposed to suggest a kind of outdoor musical that Natalie Koussevitzky envisioned for Tanglewood.
Composers have always had a certain sense of gratitude to those who commission them to write as well as to conductors who perform their works. However, composers often talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to assessing specific performances: After Stravinsky heard the broadcast of the first performance of his Ode, which Koussevitzky conducted on Oct. 8, 1943, he wired the conductor: "Just heard the Ode in your most penetrating performance. Profoundly touched. My thoughts with-you and your orchestral family."
However, in her diary, Stravinsky's wife said that her husband's comment about the performances was, "Very bad." She adds that he spent an hour before he settled on the word "penetrating" in the telegram. Three days later the composer sent the conductor a letter pointing out several matters he thought needed further attention.
With the Boston Symphony's concertmaster, Joseph Silverstein, as soloist, Ozawa's program at the Kennedy Center on Saturday will also include the Violin Comcerto. This work was written around the time that Stravinsky was giving the first performances of his Capriccio for piano and orchestra. The composer said the Capriccio was written under the spell of Weber, "that prince among musicians."
The concerto is in four relatively short movements with the titles Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio. There is a certain feeling of improvisation in much of the work, which was commissioned for the American violinist Samuel Dushkin by Blair Fairchild, an American patron of the arts who adopted Dushkin when he was a young boy, subsequently paying for his education and helping to launch his career.
Stravinsky makes the point that the Violin Concerto is "as much an orchestral piece as a solo piece," stressing that he has a special fondness for the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, whereas he does not place the violin concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelsohn or even, he says, Brahms, "among their best works." Stravinsky particularly disliked what he called "theatrical virtuosos," and for some time he avoided writing a violin concerto because of a fear that his label fitted most violinists. When he found Dushkin to be very much the opposite, his interest in writing a concerto quickly grew. He stated precisely just what he did want: "I want to write a true virtuoso concerto, and the whole spirit of the violin must be in every measure of the composition."
Somewhat paradoxically the concerto, which has never entered into the list of concertos played frequently, always seems to delight audiences when they hear it. It may well be that as younger conductors like Ozawa take it up and place it on their programs, it will find increasingly larger numbers of fans.
Along with its unusual concerto, the concert has an unusual starting time: 6 p.m. on Saturday.