Orchestra Cross
Professor Cross has been working directly with musicians from the Philharmonia Orchestra to put together the festival

Artmayro (Flickr)

Behind the scenes of London's Stravinsky Festival that is infused with Oxford research

Matt Pickles

The opening dramatic performance of a festival to celebrate Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was met with a standing ovation last weekend.

Standing in the wings of London's packed Royal Festival Hall was series consultant Jonathan Cross, who is Professor of Musicology at Oxford University.

Four years earlier, he had been approached by the Philharmonia Orchestra with the idea of a Stravinsky series.

Professor Cross was an obvious choice for the role of series consultant – he wrote a highly-regarded book on the composer in 1998 and was in the final stages of writing a biography of Stravinsky which was published last year by Reaktion.

He says his role in the festival, called Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals, was a refreshing change from his usual academic pursuits.

'As a scholar, it was great fun to have a direct engagement with the professional musical world,' he says.

'Working alongside the Philharmonia and their principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been a huge privilege. It's rare one has the opportunity to influence concert programming in this kind of way.

'The Philharmonia Orchestra was also keen to surround its concerts with all kinds of other materials, so I found myself advising them on films and other digital materials for their interactive website. I also oversaw and contributed the bulk of the 80-page programme book. I am now leading study days and giving talks before their concerts.'

Professor Cross is particularly excited by the challenge of encouraging audiences to listen to some of Stravinsky’s lesser-known works.

'Although he is such a well-known name, actually only a handful of his works are ever played – even I have not heard all of them live before,' he says.

'It is still challenging to audiences to hear these pieces they are not familiar with, so I’ve had to think of ways to get an audience to take a risk and give them a go. I hope that in some way they are changed by what they encounter.'

One of Professor Cross' aims for the festival is to help people to put Stravinsky into context.

'I want people not just to hear Stravinsky's pieces as abstract music, but to think of the composer whose life was affected by two World Wars, Revolution, emigration and tragedy, and how that context left its mark on his music, and how his music in turn left its mark on the 20th Century,' he says.

The research that went into Professor Cross' biography of Stravinsky has informed the planning of the festival. Critics praised the book for offering a fresh perspective of Stravinsky in a number of ways.

'The idea of loss and lament in his music is a key and under-explored issue,' says Professor Cross.

'A lot of his music seems playful and fun on the surface, but I hear a sense of distance and exile running deep through his music. Though he spent most of his life living elsewhere, he always seems quietly to be lamenting the loss of his native Russia. It's a key theme.

'My book also attempts to place the composer in Art Deco Paris, where he worked for twenty years. I believe it shaped his music, and in turn contributed to that environment.'

There are still tickets available for all remaining performances in May, June and September, and all the concerts are being broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In the meantime, Professor Cross encourages music students at school or university, or indeed any interested members of the public, to explore a dedicated interactive website on Stravinsky set up specially for the festival.