Mostly Mozart (8): No Mozart, all Stravinsky Program

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart: Stravinsky: International Contemporary Ensemble, Peter Serkin (piano), Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, New York City, 08.08.2011 (GG)


Study for Pianola
Fanfare for a New TheatreLied ohne Name
Three pieces for string quartet
Concerto in E-flat major (“Dumbarton Oaks”),
Eight Instrumental Miniatures
Concerto for Piano and Winds

Mostly Mozart, one of Lincoln Center’s annual summer festivals, has been “Mozart and a lot of music from other composers” for many years now. This season, the most welcome second billing went to Igor Stravinsky, under the official guise of a “focus.” Stravinsky is an easy choice – a man for all times and seasons – but never a bad one; he’s not only one of the all-time titans of the musical arts but a composer who shares many of Mozart’s virtues, like elegance, transparency, a taste for instrumental color and a vivacious élan.

These qualities seem to have brought out the best in the International Contemporary Ensemble in its all-Stravinsky evening at Alice Tully Hall, which is saying a great deal. This group regularly plays the most difficult modern and contemporary music with intelligence, precision, power and confidence, and it was both surprising and incredibly satisfying to hear them sound better than I have ever heard. When playing together as a large ensemble, ICE’s color, fullness and warmth connected the present to classical music’s historical tradition (within which Stravinsky has always been centered). Yet when playing in smaller groups (as in the first portion of the program) each musician’s phrasing and expression were deeply embedded in a line that extends from Monteverdi through the Classical and Romantic eras, all the way to the real Modernism that Stravinsky invented.

The superb playing was inseparable from the equally superb – and imaginative – construction of the program. This was not just a collection of short, chamber-sized works but a flow of musical ideas. Starting with a virtuosic, exciting realization of the Study for Pianola, realized by Cory Smythe for the disklavier, the first five pieces were played with immediate segues, making a musical narrative from concrete to abstract, from extroverted to introverted. Added fascination came from an antiphonal array for Fanfare for a New Theatre and Lied ohne Name, played from the left and right balconies.

Pablo Heras-Casado came out to lead the larger pieces, and did so with relish. He and the ensemble had a visually palpable pleasure in making music together, the kind of element that makes concertgoing so worthwhile. Their pleasure in performing had the effect, which I’ve heard commonly in Stravinsky, of making even minor pieces like Ragtime, that oddball interpretation of Tin Pan Alley dance music, into interesting and (almost) major works. Even when he was just dashing off studies, Stravinsky’s craft was so superior that everything sounded good, and played with commitment everything can be made to sound great. The Concertino, here in the 1952 revision, was a case in point: a well-made, enjoyable piece that came off as absolutely brilliant.

Of course, the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto, the Eight Instrumental Miniatures and the Concerto for Piano and Winds are truly brilliant works. The jewel-like winds and satiny strings in “Dumbarton Oaks” were beautiful, and a shining example of how the composer and ICE came together to produce something new. The miniatures were also marvelous, played with an old-world sensibility and sound that I would have expected from a Viennese ensemble. And the Concerto for Piano and Winds was completely satisfying. The work is a masterpiece, yet has been fairly problematic in performance and on record. I’ve heard Serkin play this in concert before, and his sharp clarity and properly aggressive approach was never matched well by the accompaniment. The score is the epitome of Neo-Classicism, constructed with architectural principles and the slightly jaundiced power of twentieth-century Western civilization. Here, Serkin gave each note weight – articulated with clarity and energy – while ICE produced a sound that was both huge and precise, and extremely supple in terms of instrumental blend and dynamics. The largo movement was mesmerizing, with an extreme range from pianissimo to fortissimo and tremendous comity of phrasing by all. What I heard was a rare thing, a combination of attack and breathing that valued precision and warmth simultaneously. The rousing finale brought the entire concert to the conclusion all the musicians had been preparing, a point of light, power and wonder.

George Grella