The classical music world went nuts when a Russian musicologist discovered Igor Stravinsky's long-lost Funeral Song, Op. 5, at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory during a move in 2015.
Nobody had heard the music in more than one hundred years, and the piece, which is a 12-minute homage to his music teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was performed only once before the score was misplaced in the library.
Fans and critics were especially excited because Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring sparked a riot in Paris and opened one of the first portals to modernism, was reported to be very proud of the work. He called Funeral Song the best thing he'd written before "The Firebird," which is widely regarded as his breakthrough orchestral piece.
But then a funny thing happened. Once everybody heard the music, which made its world premiere last year at the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, they all kind of agreed that it wasn't the best thing they'd ever heard. It was good! An interesting, elegiac tribute to an old teacher, a fascinating musical text that prefigured in some ways his later work and that revealed hidden influences. But the general consensus was that young Stravinsky was overselling his early work.
Still, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, who will be conducting the West Coast premiere of Funeral Song at Benaroya Hall on January 4 and 6, helped me see the music in a new way.
"Imagine putting your eyes on a new play by Shakespeare," he told me over the phone, his enthusiasm overflowing. "Even if it's not as marvelous as the other ones, the fact that you're sharing it for the first time with a new audience is very moving."
While the Stravinsky song will be the most historically significant piece of music on the bill, the most musically interesting is György Ligeti's Violin Concerto, which will be performed by Augustin Hadelich. (Ligeti is the guy whose music Stanley Kubrick used to color 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Hadelich is the guy who helped the symphony bring in its second Grammy with his solo performance of Dutilleux's violin concerto.)
In his concerto, Ligeti uses a technique called scordatura, which is a way of tuning stringed instruments so that some of them are slightly off from one another. There are also brief blasts of rare, strangely tuned ocarinas.
"It's very weird," Morlot said. "Visually, it's almost like you're overlaying a Monet with a Pollock and seeing what the result will be. All the harmonics ring beautifully, and then suddenly someone takes a red pencil to the Monet and starts to do some horrible things with it. It gives you vertigo, you start to lose all your references for scale, but it's also irreverent and quite humorous."
These two wild pieces, Morlot told me, share their roots with the evening's final event: Mozart's beloved and sprightly Symphony No. 39. "Though Stravinsky and Ligeti are both thoroughly modern composers, they both loved Mozart's operas," Morlot said. "So there's some connection there: Both Ligeti and Stravinsky set their modern vocabularies within classical frames."
If you don't feel like you'll get the allusions, just enjoy the program's tonal wave. The concert will start you off in Ligeti's strange world, take you back through Stravinsky's more recognizable but sadder one, and then finish with one of the happiest pieces of music you didn't know you knew.