In praise of Stravinsky’s stylistic diversity

September 25, 2019 07:43 pm | Updated 07:43 pm IST

Russian music: Alexander Lazarev

Russian music: Alexander Lazarev

There’s something about Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s music that makes you sit upright in a concert hall, concentrating on every note played by the orchestra and experiencing the gooseflesh in quick bursts. It may be because of the sheer melody, or because he was adventurous and innovative in his approach.

First among equals

Fortunately, it hadn’t rained on Sunday, and visitors arrived at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre to hear Russian musician, Alexander Lazarev conduct the Symphony Orchestra of India on Johannes Brahms’ ‘Piano Concerto No 2’, featuring soloist Barry Douglas, and Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Petrushka’. Both are extremely contrasting pieces, with different sets of musical skills.

Stravinsky has been a personal favourite for almost 15 years, though I have been exposed to a wider repertoire of the other Russian greats Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. His three most famous ballet works ‘The Firebird’, ‘Petrushka’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’ had premiered between 1910 and 1913, in association with renowned promoter Sergei Diaghilev. After years of listening to these magnificent pieces, it’s difficult to pinpoint which is the first among equals.

Sonic drama

Set in a 19th century fair in St. Petersburg, ‘Petrushka’ is about three puppets. The protagonist is in love with the ballerina, who rejects him as she loves the moor. That may sound like a predictable storyline, but like in most Russian ballets, the difference lays in the way each note of music builds-up and expresses the sequence of events. Four scenes, leading to Petrushka’s murder and the rise of his ghost, are summed up in 34 minutes.

In this reworked 1947 version, the orchestra is dominated by flutes, clarinets, oboes, horns, piano, harp and a wide range of percussion instruments, besides the mandatory strings. The conductor plays a crucial role in guiding the orchestra. A former artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Lazarev used his experience to full effect during the show.

It’s not very often that Mumbai gets to hear Stravinsky’s works, though Adrian Leaper conducted ‘The Firebird Suite’ in 2009, and Zane Dalal performed it last year. Though his music may sound exciting to the ear, it has certain complexities like the use of the Petrushka Chord - employing C Major and F-Sharp Major simultaneously - and playing of polyrhythms.

Classical influence

There’s an interesting story on how I got introduced to this phenomenal composer. In an interview during his 2003 Mumbai tour, jazz saxophonist Jay Beckenstein of the group Spyro Gyra had admitted that besides many jazz artistes, his biggest influence was Stravinsky. Later, jazz keyboardist George Duke had described him as a genius. The fact that two jazz masters mentioned a classical composer sparked my curiosity, and I was keen on listening to ‘The Rite Of Spring’ simply because during its 1913 premiere in Paris, half the audience had booed him and walked out. It took a while to grow, but ‘Petrushka’, ‘The Firebird’ and his later ‘Pulcinella’ grabbed me instantly.

Besides ballets, Stravinsky is known for his orchestral works and chamber music compositions. For first-time listeners, I would recommend three short pieces on YouTube. ‘Pastorale’ features a soprano singer, ‘Russian Maiden's Song’ brims with romance, and ‘Scherzo A La Russe’ should set your feet tapping. They are totally diverse compositions, but sum up the maestro's brilliance.

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