Stravinsky ~ Firebird: Berceuse and Finale (1910)

A devotee of hard rock and cheap marijuana I knew in college once told me, “I like Stravinsky … because every piece of his sounds different”. He was right.

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky

In the early ‘70’s I volunteered a few hours each week hosting a classical music program at St. Cloud State’s ragged little campus FM radio station – which, at 50 watts, had a listening radius of maybe 10 blocks. As a classical geek, I was an outsider among the long-haired, chain-toking rock DJs at the station.

This made it all the more surprising when one day I found myself chatting with a guy named Kevin who was doing maintenance work on the station’s equipment while I was playing a piece by Igor Stravinsky (yes, my microphone was turned off during this exchange – something I learned to be attentive to after a couple of early disasters).

I would have thought that Kevin would be the last guy on earth to have an opinion about a 20th-century composer of “serious” music, but he said to me – “You know, I like Stravinsky.” Being surprised at the comment, I offered the obvious (and not-too-clever) followup, uh, “Why?”. Kevin responded immediately by saying “Whatever piece it is he always sounds different”.

I’ve replayed that conversation in my head many times over the years, and I have always come to the same conclusion – Kevin was right. Stravinsky went through many stylistic changes over his long life that included stretches of time in Russia, France, Switzerland, and finally the United States. The Firebird is among his earliest large orchestra compositions and remains an audience favorite to this day owing to its constantly shifting mix of orchestral colors, rhythms, and dramatic moods.

The performance here features my bucket list choice for conductor I’d most like to see before I check out” is Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT’s interpretations always keep me on the edge of my seat. In this video we see him conducting the San Francisco Orchestra in the final climactic minutes of Firebird without a score (how does he do it?).

Watch how he draws extremes of dynamics and tempi from the group. And this guy has musical interests ranging far beyond the concert stage as shown in his terrific radio series “The MTT FIles“.

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