Leonard Bernstein's idea that Igor Stravinsky's adopted country observe his 100th birthday with a musical celebration of his works in the majesty of our National Cathedral yesterday evening turned out to be a masterstroke.
For an hour and a half the vaulted spaces of America's grandest place of worship reverberated with some of the greatest music any person ever set to paper, climaxing with Bernstein leading a rapt, devout performance of the work that Stravinsky dedicated "to the Glory of God," his "Symphony of Psalms." The emotional intensity of Stravin- See STRAVINSKY, C3, Col. 1 STRAVINSKY, From C1 sky's music tends to lie deep beneath the surface, so it does not usually bring tears. But yesterday the "Symphony of Psalms"--"his masterpiece," Bernstein told the live and television audience--proved an exception.
The program was designed to span the countless expressive paradoxes, and seeming paradoxes, that make Stravinsky's music sound so Stravinskyan--and that make him the most influential composer of the century. There was irreverence and reverence, puckishness and profundity, barbarism and gentleness, exultation and ambivalence.
Sure, the event was an extravaganza. And it was just right that way.
The celebration began at 5, making "America Celebrates Stravinsky" the most spectacular evensong the cathedral has ever held. It was telecast live to audiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with narration by Bernstein and his fellow conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. It will reach American screens tomorrow night at 9 on most public broadcasting stations.
There was an invited audience that almost filled the cathedral. Orchestra and chorus were located at the crossing, which is where the nave and the transept intersect, just below the pulpit and the great choir. And members of the audience could watch the television show on monitors that lined the sides of the nave. One thing that became clear was that Bernstein and Tilson Thomas were being slightly upstaged, as they would almost certainly prefer, by extensive footage taken over the years of the magnetic Stravinsky being interviewed, rehearsing, and in one case conversing with his close friend and most frequent collaborator, George Balanchine--the only remaining giant of the performing arts who approaches Stravinsky's stature.
Bernstein made an opening speech and then raised his baton, started to turn to the National Symphony Orchestra and said, "So, as the great Igor said in his typically witty, unpredictable way," lowering his baton on the "Greeting Prelude," Stravinsky's elliptical, hilarious spoof on "Happy Birthday."
Then Bernstein concentrated on the huge ballets that marked the composer's "first appearance on the music scene." There was the finale from the first of them, "The Firebird." Then came "The Glorification of the Chosen One," the work that was for this century what Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony was to the previous one. "Music could never again be the same," observed Bernstein.
Then Tilson Thomas moved back among the winds to lead the exquisite, pointilliste little Symphonies of Wind Instruments that Stravinsky composed about 30 years later.
Tilson Thomas recalled a concert in Los Angeles on Oct. 31, 1966, where the composer's last major work, the Requiem Canticles, was first performed. "He seemed preoccupied that such a work would be his last one; it just didn't seem right to him." So Stravinsky sat down and wrote another work, his mordant song setting of "The Owl and the Pussycat." "Somehow that seemed more right to him," said Tilson Thomas. Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson sang it to perfection, with Tilson Thomas at the piano.
Then Tilson Thomas conducted what he called Stravinsky's "biggest virtuoso American piece," the Symphony in Three Movements. The National Symphony sounded superb. It is American in the same sense as "Broadway Boogie Woogie," the celebrated painting of Stravinsky's fellow e'migre', Piet Mondrian.
Then there was the "Symphony of Psalms," which Bernstein called Stravinsky's "Song of Songs." The performance, with the Choral Arts Society in fine form, was not in the same mold as the composer's recordings. It was much slower and more intense. Sorry, Igor, but Bernstein does it better.
Above and beyond all this beautiful performing, though, it was the sense of the occasion that dominated this event--the sense of history. One kept wondering whether earlier generations did anything comparable on the centenaries of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven.