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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, and strings
First complete Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes grew out of the unique cultural milieu of mid-century Los Angeles. In 1940, the composer settled in West Hollywood, a few blocks from the intersection of Sunset and Doheny, joining an artistic community that included much of the cream of Europe fleeing Hitler’s growing shadow. Stravinsky stayed nearly 30 years, leaving only three years before his death, partaking of activities artistically rarefied, and not-so-rarefied. His wife’s diary entry for January 21, 1948 says, “Sunbathe, and I drive Igor in the hills to air out his hangover.”
He composed Danses concertantes on a 1941 commission from the Werner Janssen Symphony. Janssen had made a name for himself as the first American to conduct the New York Philharmonic (in 1934) and as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony (1937-1939), before coming west to compose movie scores, which he did with striking success. Five of his 15 scores were nominated for Academy Awards, three in 1946 alone, including Captain Kidd. His best-known film these days is probably the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca.
Stravinsky conducted Janssen’s orchestra in the February 1942 premiere of the Danses, but he may have had other plans for them from the start. Choreographer George Balanchine had also come to Los Angeles, heeding the siren call of the movie business, and he and Stravinsky saw each other often. Balanchine’s choreographed production of the Danses was premiered by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York in 1944. In later years Balanchine told an interviewer that he had asked Stravinsky to write something for his company “if he had free time,” and when Stravinsky eventually said, “Yes, I have time. What would you like?” Balanchine responded, “ ‘Just start with something – a variation – anything…’ so he wrote the Danses concertantes.”
Stravinsky, for his part, spoke of the Danses as though they were always intended for concert performance and stood on their own notwithstanding ballet titles like pas d’action. He told the San Francisco Chronicle critic that they were brief because “the attention span of today’s audience is limited and the problem of the present-day composer is one of condensation.” This in the 1940s, long before MTV.
- Howard Posner