Of his 89 years, Igor Stravinsky spent more than 30 in Los Angeles — composing, conducting, flirting with the movie industry, participating in the city’s growing musical awareness to a greater extent than any other visitor during the heavy emigration of the war years and beyond. In 1996, Esa-Pekka Salonen and his Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated its sometime resident with a Stravinsky Festival at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris; now — and it’s about time — they have begun a comparable event at home.
The celebration, which began at a crowded and generally ecstatic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday, includes three orchestral programs, a chamber-music event in the Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series and a round of ancillary events — discussions and reminiscences, mostly — at the County Museum and the downtown Public Library. Programs include two familiar works firmly entrenched in the repertory, plus several presenting more challenging, less familiar fare. The weekend’s program fell into the latter category, emphatically so in the revival of “Persephone,” a 50-minute work for narrator, singers and orchestra dating from 1933.
The text, by the French mystical poet Andre Gide, spins a web of contemplation around the legend of Persephone, daughter of nature goddess Demeter, whose capture by Pluto deprived the world of springtime and growth. (She and the world are, needless to say, rescued.) Both text and music fall into the time of rediscovered classicism in the arts; this meant, in Stravinsky’s case, a move toward a clear, chaste — did someone whisper “dull”? — outlook, far removed from the hypnotic rhythms and colors of “Firebird” or “Rite of Spring.”
The performance under Salonen, bolstered by excellent choral work by the Master Chorale and an endearing children’s ensemble, took the full measure of the score, although neither tenor John Aler’s merely serviceable singing or the fevered narration of Holland Taylor (“The Truman Show”) — in English, against an otherwise French text — did much to cast light on the proceedings. Far more light was cast by the evening’s true masterwork, Stravinsky’s 1930 “Symphony of Psalms,” with chorus and reduced orchestra (no violins) turning Biblical texts into audible stained glass.
Upcoming orchestral concerts will include “The Rite of Spring” (March 1, 3, 4) and “Firebird” (March 9-11), both well-known hereabouts from Salonen-led recordings on Sony. The later ballet score “Agon,” in which Stravinsky first dabbled in the 12-tone style he had previously scorned, is on the agenda, as is the trio of short concertos for piano and various instrumental combos, with pianist Olli Mustonen. The Umbrella concert (at the nearby small Zipper Concert Hall on March 12) will include the haunting cantata “Abraham and Isaac,” one of Stravinsky’s final scores, and the popular “A Soldier’s Tale” in Stravinsky’s own cut-down version for trio.