Inspiration from a fellow radical

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

So it was Super Bowl Sunday and I was at the Seattle Symphony with my friend Margaret, wondering in the middle of the Mozart whether the game had started and if the Eagles were winning. Then after the intermission I forgot all about the football as the full orchestra started on Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. From the Enchanted Garden to the Finale, the performance was extraordinary. This was my first symphony experience, and it was interesting, but it wasn't until the Stravinsky that I stopped thinking that the classical music of Europe was too far removed from that of the indigenous American and Latin cultures with which I more closely identify.

On the way out of the auditorium, Margaret mentioned that another of Stravinsky's masterpieces (The Rite of Spring) was so radical during his day that most of the audience at its premier rioted in the hall. Later that night, I looked into the incident and found that Maurice Ravel stood among the angry crowd and yelled, "Bravo, Genius!"

Oddly, most of the thoughts I had as I listened to the Firebird Suite, a Russian folktale of adventure, love, magic and freedom, were about the ongoing clashes of cultures in Southeast Alaska, especially in Juneau: the Native struggle to maintain clan traditions and practices amid the oppressive conformity of modern institutions; the confrontations between those who would develop or preserve our natural resources; liberal Democrat versus conservative Republican; right-to-life against right-to-choose; two high schools or one ... .

So, as I experienced the power of the music, I couldn't help but think that the differences that separate us seem to be endless in number and invulnerable against our best efforts to reconcile and move forward together. But as discouraging as that sounds, I actually found solace in the hours after my introduction to Stravinsky. Though the music evoked unpleasant memories of personal and social conflict and the burdens of leadership, the story of Stravinsky's departure from the classical European tradition, his initial persecution and ultimate acceptance, was inspirational. And as the music passed from struggle to triumph, I realized that I had learned some valuable lessons.

First, I realized that it pays to be open-minded about the influences of other cultures. I now know that there are classical, even if neo-classical, composers that I can enjoy despite my preferences for the music of other cultures.

Second, persecution, or at least conflict, comes with the territory for those who would seek to change the status quo. Stravinsky may not have fully understood how the public would react to his changes in convention, but instead of backtracking to what was safe and familiar, he was loyal to his passion, and so his innovations laid the foundation for modern music.

And third, I learned that the price we are willing to pay to be who we are and to do what we believe is right may at times be high, but in the end, who and how else can we be? Stravinsky was a lawyer by training but a composer by birth. Would that we were all able to be what we were born to be.

On a less philosophical note, I also realized that missing the first half of the Super Bowl is no big deal, especially since I was lucky enough to find a friend and fellow radical in Igor Stravinsky, and from his music learn some important lessons. In fact, the next time I'm in Juneau I'll put on the Firebird Suite and walk the West Glacier Trail. I'm inspired just thinking about it.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Alaska educator.



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