At Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic are in the midst of a Stravinsky Festival entitled The Russian Stravinsky. Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the series explores how the composer's Russian roots have informed his works. The Orchestra's performances of Stravinsky pieces will include his ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, Jeu de cartes, Orpheus, and The Rite of Spring; the choral masterwork Symphony of Psalms; the dance cantata, Les Noces, based on a Russian folk wedding; the opera Oedipus Rex; and L'Histoire du soldat. The schedule further includes chamber music concerts, an a cappella choral performance by the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus, and a symposium. The Festival runs thru May 8, 2010. Photo of the composer, above.
OEDIPUS REX is a work that I love but have previously seen performed only once: at Tanglewood where we went especially to hear Jessye Norman as Jocasta and then she canceled (but Kenneth Riegel was a superb Oedipus and Seiji Ozawa led a magnificent performance).
With two singers I greatly admire in the principal roles - Anthony Dean Griffey as Oedipus and Waltraud Meier as Jocasta - the current performances seemed like must-see events. Both of these singers have utterly distinctive voices and in recent seasons each has given memorable performances at the Met as Peter Grimes and Isolde respectively. Tony's voice is ample and warm and he uses the streak of vulnerability that runs thru it to telling expressive effect. The role of Jocasta lies a bit low for Ms. Meier but her signature intense delivery was most welcome and her one sustained top note was a sonic thrill. I was wishing she and Tony had sung the Liebesnacht from TRISTAN as an encore!
Mikhail Petrenko ended up with a triple assignment, performing the roles of Creon, Tiresias and the Messenger. His voice is clear and steady; even though Gergiev sometimes allowed the orchestra to nearly cover him, Petrenko didn't force his tone. Tenor Alexander Timchenko sang pleasingly as the Shepherd at whose utterance the fate of Oedipus is sealed.
In the role of The Speaker, actor Jeremy Irons (yet another truly distinctive voice) brought just the right combination of hauteur and irony to his narration. His is the kind of speaking voice you want to listen to so that his speeches never seemed like interruptions to the music but became part of it.
The performance reached its apex with the arrival of Jocasta where Valery Gergiev unleashed the orchestra in a grandiose clamor of fanfares which resonated thru the hall to splendid effect.
To open the evening a rarity: Le Roi des Etoiles was performed. Taking advantage of the presence of the chorus for the OEDIPUS, Maestro Gergiev (above) presented this mini-cantata which was composed in 1911-12 to a text by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. The poem is translated as "The King of the Stars". Scored for large orchestra and six-part men's chorus, the cantata lasts only about five minutes (54 measures of music, we are told). The work is dedicated to Claude Debussy who told Stravinsky it was "extraordinary" but felt that its combination of the massive forces required with its short duration would limit performance possibilities. Le Roi des étoiles was first performed in public in 1939.
Stravinsky had stated that he used the text not for its meaning but instead for the sound of the language. The piece, though short, is rich in harmonics and was sung with spiritual intensity by a contingent of the Mariinsky's male chorus. Both here and in the OEDIPUS the choral sound had richness, depth and emotional vitality.
Leonidas Kavakos (above) was the soloist in the Stravinsky Violin Concerto which I believe was my first live hearing of this piece in a concert context (I've heard it often while watching the Balanchine ballet). For all the excellence of the two vocal works, it was the concerto that I found most thrilling tonight. Played with keen rhythmic vitality by the New York Philharmonic - with many very fine highlighted bits from the various players - the concerto's solo line was rendered with dazzling virtuosity, sweet or edgy tone as needed and pinpoint dynamic control by Mr. Kavakos. At times nearly dancing to the music, the violinist was in full command of this very demanding score. Gergiev was at his thrilling best here, clearly relishing the tapestry of sound he was weaving from Stravinsky's intricate pattern. Called back twice by clamorous applause, Leonidas obliged with a solo Bach encore which held the House in attentive silence.