Deciding to pay their homage to Igor Stravinsky, on the 50th anniversary of his death, in the atrium of MAXXI, Italy’s National Museum of 21st-century Arts, Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma established a link between two great artists. Similar to Stravinsky’s neoclassical (or rather neo-Baroque) music, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI is an effort to reconcile past and present, namely an ultra-modern language proposing “multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry” with Rome’s architectural heritage. Asymmetrical, with unclearly separated levels, and a variety of mostly postmodern art works hanging on its white, curvaceous walls, the atrium was a suitable space for this musical performance, despite the acoustic challenges that the recording engineers had to face.

Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma at the MAXXI
© Fabrizio Sansoni

The first work on the programme came with another architectural connection. The Concerto in E flat major for chamber orchestra "Dumbarton Oaks" is named after the Washington DC estate of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the American couple that commissioned the work to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Now a research centre and museum, “Dumbarton Oaks” consists of two opposing buildings placed within a huge garden. Designed by Frederic Rhinelander King and Philip Johnson respectively, these two wings were constructed simultaneously between 1961 and 1963 but in two dramatically contrasting styles, one traditional and the other modern, a fitting – even if involuntary – tribute to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto composed a quarter of a century earlier.

Daniele Gatti
© Fabrizio Sansoni

The composition is inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso model and, particularly, by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. On top of pulsating rhythms, Gatti wove a transparent musical tapestry alternating concertino and ripieno segments, interspersed with more or less elaborated fugato moments. Almost every instrumentalist had his moment to shine, with a beautiful flute solo in the Allegretto and a less conspicuous bassoon one in the Con moto. The conductor pointed out all those odd sound combinations and broken chords, keeping listeners on their toes. At the same time, Gatti made clear the presence of both reminiscences of past Stravinsky compositions (the ebullience of Jeu de cartes in the central movement) and foretastes of future ones (the soundscape of the Symphony in C in the outer movements).

Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma at the MAXXI
© Fabrizio Sansoni

Recollections of all these works find their way in the Danses Concertantes, composed a couple of years later. Intended to be performed in the concert hall, the work, in condensed five movements, has been nevertheless choreographed on several occasions. Like Dumbarton Oaks, it is a charming exercise of composing in the Baroque style, while employing 20th century rhythmic, melodic and harmonic idioms. As this precise rendition made abundantly clear, it is music – full of sparks, odd syncopations, and ironic meanders – that has to be appreciated at face value and not disparaged as “old-fashioned” as it was by protesting proponents of serialism at its 1945 French premiere.

The older Suites for Small Orchestra are based on two sets of “Easy Pieces”, piano duets meant for young musicians’ education. The combined eight witty and delightful little sketches include portraits of friends – Diaghilev, Satie, Alfredo Casella – as well as souvenirs of trips to Spain or Naples. Like the other works on the programme, these suites are proof that Stravinsky’s oeuvre is a real continuum. Leading a well-balanced ensemble that played with enthusiasm, Gatti pointed out both the neo-classicism and Petrushka’s circus atmosphere that permeate this score.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera di Roma video stream