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November 11, 1997

Modern Composers

Stravinsky in America. London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. (RCA Victor, CD # 09026-68865-2) 1997.

Igor Stravinsky (1982 - 1971), arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century, had a career that in some respects ran backwards. This new album from RCA contains ten works written by Stravinsky during the last phase of his remarkable career, after he fled the war in Europe for the United States in 1939. He settled in Hollywood, became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and lived and worked in this country for the rest of his life. Selections on the album range from very short works such as his re- orchestration of The Star Spangled Banner, done in 1941 for President Roosevelt, Circus Polka ("composed for a Young Elephant'), and Canon on a Russian Popular Tune, to major works including Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam and Agon (Ballet for Twelve Dancers).

After studying composition and orchestration for a short time with Rimsky- Korsakov at St. Petersburg, Stravinsky formed a life-long and life-shaping friendship with Sergei Diaghilev, leader of the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky composed some of his best- known and most influential work for Diaghilev's ballets, including Firebird, Petrouchka, and Rite of Spring -- all written before 1913. Some critics have argued that these works "sound like the culmination of a life's pursuit in music" rather than the work of a composer still in his twenties. Stravinsky's style in those early works has been described as one characterized by "clean orchestral textures, bright instrumentation, and an emphasis on stamping, irregular rhythms." By the 1920s, as young composers were trying to emulate the quintessential modernism of those early works, Stravinsky was moving in different directions, paring down his work to the bare essentials, and at the same time embracing elements of musical neoclassicism, especially an expanded harmonic language, and employing traditional musical forms.

In the 1950s Stravinsky surprised the musical world again with two developments -- the strong influence of Renaissance music in the work of this period, and his embracing the techniques of serialism. One of the masterpieces of this period, Agon, begun in 1953 and completed in 1957, is included in the present collection.

Stravinsky's protégé and friend Michael Tilson Thomas, describes Agon as "really a collection of musical souvenirs of a season at Monday Evening Concerts." "Here," Thomas continues, "Stravinsky records his impressions of Baroque music, Renaissance music, serial music by Schoenberg, Webern and even Boulez. He gives his impressions of them in his wry no more than is really necessary' manner." One still hears in Agon, completed when he was 75 years old, Stravinsky's belief that "Music...is a power which justifies things."

Agon is divided into seventeen movements, grouped into four sections. As with most ballet music, Agon varies abruptly; some sections are grave, some highly sensual, most are fairly up-tempo, "dense without being thick, full of rhythmic surprise and enchanting hints of melody, and orchestrally brilliant." In short, a little something for everyone.

You can hear Agon by Igor Stravinsky on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, November 20 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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