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Boston Phoenix Feature Article

Codebreakers The Boston Secession cracks “The Stravinsky Code”

The Boston Secession cracks “The Stravinsky Code”
by David Weninger
April 28, 2005

Classical music’s premier humorist, Victor Borge, had a great joke about Leonard Bernstein’s musical outreach efforts. "I heard that Mr. Bernstein won another award." Pause. "For explaining the music of Igor Stravinsky." Pause. "To Igor Stravinsky." Cue the laughter.??Of course, the folks at the Boston Secession aren’t attempting anything so exalted as explaining Stravinsky’s music (much less to the man himself). But for its program next Friday, the innovative and intrepid chorus has crafted a program called "The Stravinsky Code" designed to open up a musical idea that provided him inspiration at all points of his career.

That thread — the code of the concert title — is the octatonic scale, a modal scale made up of alternating half-steps and whole steps. (If you start on C, the scale would be C-C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-B-flat.) "What this scale accomplishes is a marvelous polytonality, a kind of determined dissonance," says Jane Ring Frank, the Secession’s music director, in an e-mail exchange. With its implication of different keys, the scale functions as a kind of midway point between tonality and atonality. "I believe that this music really creates an electric (and often tension-filled) beauty," Frank says. "My sense is that it is accessible to the ear, because there is so much for the listener to recognize, to access, to hang on to."

Frank has chosen a broad range of this ‘coded’ music. She reaches back to Stravinsky’s predecessors, including Schubert (the Sanctus from the E-flat Mass) and Mussorgsky (the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov) and forward to his imitators ("Tempus est iocundum" from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana). And from Stravinsky’s own œuvre, she chooses from works as diverse as Petrushka (the "Shrove-Tide Fair," which she’ll play in a two-piano arrangement with the chorus’s accompanist, Scott Nicholas), the ballet Les noces, and his late 12-tone work Requiem Canticles.

The second half of the program explores Stravinsky’s pastiche style. It opens with his scandalous arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is full of lush harmonies and dotted rhythms. "I am fascinated that Stravinsky wrote the arrangement as a gift to the country he loved and adopted," Frank says. For his generosity, Stravinsky was arrested for violating a law that forbade reharmonization of the National Anthem. ("The music was pulled from the music stands of the Boston Symphony Orchestra by the local police.") From there, Frank and company move through "his Verdian use of melody in Oedipus Rex, his interest in early music (as attested by his composition of two of the vocal parts in a Gesualdo motet), his sexy Tango for the piano, and his use of Rossini-like melodies in Le rossignol." To conclude, they revisit the octatonic scale in its full bloom: the final movement of Symphony of Psalms, with its overlaid triads of C major and E-flat major. And that, Frank points out, "naturally falls into Bernstein’s Quintet from West Side Story. Bernstein directly copied the Symphony’s harmonies and rhythms. So the pastiche tradition moves on. . . . "??The Boston Secession performs "The Stravinsky Code" next Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 11 Garden Street in Harvard Square. Tickets are $35; call (617) 499-4860.

Copyright Boston Phoenix 2005
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