The din of Los Angeles’ fulsome eulogizing of a late rap performer, gunned down about two weeks ago, had yet to be dispelled when Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped onto Disney Hall’s podium last Friday to direct the first in a series of three Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts paying tribute to another deceased former resident, Igor Stravinsky.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

Most “Hollywood” films and television shows are shot in Canada and elsewhere these days, but Los Angeles, like a faded beauty who refuses to acknowledge the tread of time creeping across her face, still clings to the cultivation of its own glamour, affecting its self-aware pose for the cameras. True to form, the city relished the opportunity to perform its funereal emoting for a global audience, with august dignitaries such as the mayor and former head of state grabbing their moment of screen time, culminating with a grand funeral cortège, and the naming of a city square after the recently departed.

Stravinsky, who along with another former resident, Arnold Schoenberg, had rewritten the very grammar of music, enjoys not so much as a bench or parking space named in his honor in the city wherein he spent almost the entirety of his last quarter century. Not even an overpriced IPA from one of the many breweries of the bohemian bourgeois that now proliferate across formerly working-class Northeast Los Angeles bears any tribute to the great emancipator of rhythm. Perhaps it is just as well. “Prizes are for boys,” observed another musical maverick, Charles Ives. “I’m all grown up.” But what a boyish grown-up Stravinsky could be.

True, the concert ended with his big hit, the once controversial, now beloved Rite of Spring. But it was the Apollonian grace and athleticism of Agon which rightfully crowned the composer’s balletic career, as well as Salonen’s program. Exuberantly melding influences ranging from medieval music to serialism, the work teems with the intellectual curiosity, the willingness to explore the new that distinguishes Stravinsky from his generational peers, to say nothing of the lightness of touch with which he ties it all together into an idiom over which he is sole sovereign. Salonen conjured from the orchestra a fleet, airy, deceptively tensile performance sparkling with Euterpean radiance, redolent more of the vernal than the twilit stereotype of the “Indian Summer” from which this score emerged.

The Rite of Spring, on the other hand, no longer disturbs the listener who by now knows well that its savage facade disguises the score’s indebtedness to Mussorgsky and Russian folk song. A sense of how shocking this music must have once been is glimpsed from a remarkable recording documenting Sir Eugene Goossens’ rehearsals of the score’s local premiere back in 1928. Ninety years later, however, the same orchestra makes no pretense to restoring any sense of what had been eye-opening and disturbing for an earlier generation of listeners. Masters of this score they long have been and so they demonstrated once again on Friday under Salonen, dispatching the work’s once-perplexing rhythms with chromium-plated confidence, revealing the weavings of the composer’s orchestral tapestry with a limpidness worthy of Mendelssohn – that is if that composer had somehow been unperturbed by Protestant inhibitions, and was made giddy with several shots of Stolichnaya besides.

There was even something new by Stravinsky on the program, although in the spirit of NBC’s late 1990s slogan it was of the “if you haven’t heard it, it’s new to you” variety. Long presumed lost and only recently rediscovered, the Funeral Song, written by a twenty-something Stravinsky in memory of his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, barely portends at the epoch-defining creations which would flow from his pen only five years later, let alone in five decades. Nevertheless, its evocative (if still undigested) cribbings from Wagner, Dukas and Scriabin remain a fine portrait of the artist as a young man on the eve of worldwide fame.

Like a Benjamin Button of music, Salonen seemed to say, Stravinsky only became younger and better with age. No more potent tribute can be rendered to his memory than by keeping his music alive in the concert halls and in the borderless expanse of the audience's imagination.

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