Igor Stravinsky’s music has endured much over the past century – scorn, dismissal, ridicule, outrage – yet has managed to transcend them all and survive. Last Thursday his art was made to endure yet another ordeal, this time in the form of Peter Sellars. It will survive that too, although one wonders why the close of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Stravinsky retrospective under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen culminated in such a meandering visualization, as clueless as it was dull.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

“If producers are allowed to continue their writing of graffiti and vulgarity and stupidity on masterpieces,” opined Walter Legge, “we shall be forced to insist that they write the libretto and music to match the rubbish they put on the stage!” Judging by his lazy semi-staging of Stravinsky’s Perséphone, one doubts whether Sellers would have had the reserves of energy to pull such a feat off.

Instead, the modern master of Regietheater appeared here to be lost. Khmer classical dancers were awkwardly juxtaposed with a Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus inexplicably dressed as if they had stepped out from an early 2000s Gap catalog. Most people know the old saying: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sellars’ problem was that he had nothing to say at all, but was desperately attempting to despite himself.

Salonen’s direction of Stravinsky’s pantheistic opus was altogether on a different plane: sharply etched, yet treating the orchestra as an endless palette of watercolors. The expressive artistry of tenor Paul Groves as Eumolpes and narration of Cécilia Tsan added to the richness, while both choirs sung with clarity and fine diction.

The conductor also vividly highlighted the score’s French accents, perhaps unequalled in any other work from the composer’s neoclassical period. Riffing off the Debussy of Pélleas et Mélisande, the Milhaud of Les Choéphores, and the Poulenc of Les Biches, Stravinsky unifies these influences into a creation resounding wholly in his own voice, a work somehow standing apart from the expressive, yet deeply moving all the same.

That feeling permeates his Orpheus, composed some 15 years later in the twilight of his neoclassical period. With great care and subtlety of hue, Salonen delineated the strands of this music which seems timeless, as if Minoan ruins could suddenly burst into song. Graceful and lithe, the Philharmonic demonstrated the range of colors of which they are capable in this gentlest of Stravinsky scores, balancing beautiful string and wind textures against the punctuations of harp (and the occasional thundering of timpani). In its quiet way Orpheus may very well be one of the strangest of this 20th century master’s scores, not to mention one of his most immediately beautiful.

Stravinsky was a volatile mixture of modernist and conservative tendencies, each vying for supremacy, each confused by people as being the only true face of the composer. It was emblematic of Salonen’s series as a whole that it cast light upon the gaze of a revolutionary whose gaze would turn to the past at least as often as it would look ahead. If Stravinsky is rightfully remembered for the modernism of his earlier career, he also rightfully deserves to be equally remembered as a tone poet who spent his life cultivating an art dedicated to beauty.