An In-Depth Probe of Stravinsky by Esa-Pekka Salonen & London Philharmonia

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday October 11, 2016 - 12:34:00 PM

Cal Performances hosted London’s Philharmonia Orchestra led by Esa-Pekka Salonen for three concerts, October 7-9, at Zellerbach Hall. Two of the three concerts focused on works by Igor Stravinsky. Although the famed Le Sacre du Printemps/Rite of Spring was scheduled for Saturday, I opted for the Sunday afternoon concert featuring Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is performed quite regularly, and it is often danced, either in Nijinsky’s original choreography or in some new version. As this was a simple concert version of Rite of Spring, and because I was unable to schedule more than one concert this weekend, I chose to attend works by Stravinsky that are far less often heard. I was by no means disappointed with my choice. 

Stravinsky, like his friend Picasso, kept endlessly reinventing himself. After creating a scandal in 1913 with the fiercely pagan rhythms and human sacrifice of his Rite of Spring, which was deeply rooted in Russian folk music and dance, Stravinsky turned to a neoclassicism rooted in the mainstream of western music by composers such as Vivaldi, Telemann and J.S. Bach. Meanwhile, Picasso, who first met Stravinsky in 1917 when both men traveled to Rome to work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, followed his ground-breaking Cubist period by a neoclassicism of his own, inspired by Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues he saw in Rome and Naples. Later, both Stravinsky and Picasso went through many more stylistic changes and so-called ‘periods’. But both men were immensely fertile artists at every step along the way.  

Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex dates from 1929-27 and thus precedes his Symphony of Psalms of 1930. However, Sunday’s program began with the Symphony of Psalms, so I will treat it first in this review. This work marked a sudden, somewhat surprising return in 1926 by Stravinsky to the Russian Orthodox faith after many years of showing no outward signs of religiosity. By 1926, of course, Stravinsky had already spent many years outside of Russia, having left his native country in 1910. Nonetheless, Stravinsky clearly harbored affection for the rituals, icons, and observances of the Russian Orthodox religion. In fact, when he began composing the Symphony of Psalms, he initially set it not in Latin but in ancient Slavonic, the language of the Russian Orthodox Church. The subsequent decision to set the music to a Latin text from the book of Psalms is usually seen as a distancing device, a sign of the émigré who looks back with nostalgia on rituals and a faith he now sees fondly but from a distance.  

As a whole, Symphony of Psalms has a ritual quality, a depersonalized monumental feel emphasized by the vast size of the chorus, here performed by three choral groups – the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chorus, led by Eric Choate, the Lund Male Chorus, directed by Andreas Lönnqvist, and the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco, led by Susan McMane. The opening E-minor chords emphasize this ritual quality, announcing some great collective statement of faith. However, the personal plea is also present in the words “quoniam advena ego sum apud te”/”for I am stranger with Thee,” words which may have had particular resonance for Stravinsky himself. Woodwinds and brass dominate, while the two pianos and a harp function mainly like percussion instruments. In the second of the three movements, a soft timpani motif is sustained almost as a heartbeat. Then a double fugue is heard, one in the instruments and the other in the choir. The third and final movement is one long, lovely hymn of praise, with the word “Laudate/Praise” being sung over and over, in delicate tones that speak of meditation and quiet devotion rather than loud, dramatic expressions of faith. Throughout this Symphony of Psalms, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra and the vast chorus in a sustained mood of quiet yet precise intensity that was breathtaking. 

After intermission the London Philharmonia Orchestra returned to perform Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio of 1926-27, Oedipus Rex, based on the ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles. With a libretto by Jean Cocteau, Stravinsky decided to have it translated into Latin as a way of achieving “a certain monumental character by translation backwards, so to speak, from a secular to a sacred language.”  

Oedipus Rex opens with the chorus of citizens of Thebes bewailing the outbreak of a deadly plague that threatens to decimate the city. They call on Oedipus, their king, to free them from this plague. Oedipus, sung here by tenor Nicholas Phan, assures them proudly that he, illustrious Oedipus, loves them and will save them. From the outset, Oedipus is seen as arrogant and boastful, full of himself. The choice of a tenor voice for Oedipus is interesting, especially in light of the fact that all the other male roles are sung by a bass-baritone, the only exception being the rather small role of the shepherd, which is also for a tenor. As Oedipus, Nicholas Phan sang beautifully; but there was something almost effeminate in his tone, which contrasted sharply with the robustly masculine tone of bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams, who sang the roles of Creon, Tiresias, and the Messenger. Incidentally, it is somewhat surprising that the role of Tiresias, that aged seer who had lived part of his life as a woman, was sung by a husky-voiced bass-baritone. All told, Hadleigh Adams almost stole the show in his three roles while Nicholas Phan as Oedipus sang exquisitely but came off in Cocteau’s libretto and Stravinsky’s music as a rather vain and pompous fop. As Jocasta, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung sang gloriously; and with her tall stature she loomed over her husband/son Oedipus as portrayed by the small-in-stature Nicholas Phan. The brief role of the Shepherd was ably sung by tenor Thomas Glenn. The narrator, a speaking role, was performed with eloquence by Carl Lumbly. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra and chorus in a performance full of conviction. This Philharmonia Orchestra of London, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, does Stravinsky proud. It was a great pleasure to hear them in this program.