Poster Igor Stravinsky
This photo of Igor Stravinsky is from a Dec. 20, 1940, visit to the Twin Cities, when he conducted the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in a program of his works, including the suites for 'Petrushka' and 'Firebird.' Stravinsky returned to Minneapolis with Robert Craft to conduct the orchestra on Jan. 21, 1966.
Hennepin County Library

Did Igor Stravinsky really celebrate his 70th birthday at a Duluth supper club?

As the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and Wise Fool Theater join forces in a production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the Depot Theater on Feb. 27 and 28, they will be performing just blocks from the former site of a Duluth supper club called the Flame, where Stravinsky happened to celebrate his 70th birthday back in the day.

 Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera
Russian-born U.S. composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife, Vera, smile together in September 1961.
AFP via Getty Images

Stravinsky’s visit to Duluth on June 18, 1952, is rarely mentioned in Minnesota’s local press. In fact, it has been regarded by some in Duluth as an urban legend. As it turns out, the story of the Duluth luncheon is completely true and described in colorful detail in the diary of the composer’s friend and collaborator, Robert Craft, who dined with Stravinsky at the harborside restaurant along with the composer’s wife, Vera Stravinsky, and their travel companion, American composer Alexei Haieff.

Stravinsky’s stop in Duluth came after a 150-mile morning drive along Highway 2, which offered what Craft described as “Baltic-like” views of the south shore of Lake Superior. Several days before, the Stravinskys and Craft had flown from Europe to Detroit after their participation in the annual Holland Festival. On June 15, Stravinsky and his companions took a taxi to Flint, Michigan, where they collected a new Buick that Stravinsky had purchased before the trip and that provided transportation over the following two weeks as they made their way to the composer’s home in Hollywood.

Stephen Walsh, the author of a two-volume biography on Stravinsky, has described the birthday lunch at the Flame as one of the composer’s “most petulant displays of restaurant hostilities.”

According to the first-hand account from Craft, Stravinsky had not “adjusted to the improbability of finding well-stocked wine cellars in hinterland America” and was furious that the only bottle available was a Beaujolais rouge, which was served to them in an ice-filled bucket. Craft describes how Stravinsky reverted to “his restaurant routine,” asking the waiter to remove the iced water from the table and to bring him a knife that cuts (“un couteau qui coupe”) without attempting to use the one that had been provided. Stravinsky asked for a tall, empty glass to hold his spectacles. After testing the legs of the table for stability, he inserted wedges under each of its legs. Following the meal, the composer became exasperated by the party’s empty plates, moving them himself to a vacant table after a waiter had failed to respond quickly enough to his request.

Leaving Duluth for Bemidji, Stravinsky took the passenger seat of the car. According to Craft, who sat in back discussing Bach with Haieff, Stravinsky provided “unneeded directions from an atlas spread on his knees” as Vera drove. A journalist for Life magazine wrote the following year that “Stravinsky admires cars as works of mechanical precision but is too nervous to take the wheel.” On the drive through northern Minnesota, Stravinsky instead drank whiskey from a thermos since, according to Craft, his thirst had not “been sufficiently slaked by the ice-cold Beaujolais” at the Flame.

Craft’s diary entries describe the entourage’s movement west, including notes about the prairies and elevators of North Dakota along with the “black birds with orange wing spots” (red-winged blackbirds), which could be seen from the road between Grand Forks and Minot. From a treacherous drive near the Canadian border in Montana, Craft and Life recounted a steep, narrow climb without guard rails that seemed to have left Stravinsky shaken.

After exiting the car for a view at the top, Stravinsky remarked: “I despise mountains; they tell me nothing.”

Stravinsky, who was generally unimpressed with what Craft called “postcard views,” had a similar reaction to Niagara Falls in 1937: “It’s something like a revolution — it’s terrible.”

An entry from the diary of Vera Stravinsky indicates that the travelers completed their drive to Los Angeles on June 29 and that gas for the whole trip from Flint had cost $110.95. Vera’s diary mentions the Beaujolais and birthday lunch in Duluth and also documents a “bad dinner” the night before at Mertens in Iron River, Michigan.

Igor Stravinsky
Robert Craft, right, chats with Igor Stravinsky. Craft's diaries provide a colorful account of a 70th birthday lunch for Stravinsky that took place at the Duluth supper club the Flame on June 18, 1952. Craft, who died in 2015, has been described as an “elegant Boswell” to the great modernist composer.
Robert Craft Igor Stravinsky Foundation

Those curious to hear what might have been in Stravinsky’s head during the summer of 1952 can listen to his Cantata, which was completed on July 21 and premiered in Los Angeles in November of that year with the composer conducting. The title of its sixth movement, “Westron Wind,” seems fitting for a California road trip. Craft’s diary entry on the day of the Cantata’s completion describes an earthquake that rattled the composer’s bookshelves and prompted a quip from Stravinsky that “Ravel knocked down Debussy.”

Stravinsky and Craft returned to Minnesota on at least one occasion — a Jan. 21, 1966, program with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on which Craft conducted Stravinsky’s masterpiece, The Rite of Spring. For the same concert, Stravinsky, now 83, led the orchestra in performances of his Fireworks and the ballet The Fairy’s Kiss.

In a recent conversation, Ron Kari — a violist and veteran of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra who, remarkably, has performed in all of its Masterworks Series concerts since 1962 — recounted how a contingent of Duluth concertgoers made the trip to Minneapolis to hear Stravinsky in 1966. Kari remained behind for a DSSO concert that evening but has had occasional opportunities since then to perform Stravinsky in Duluth.

Since Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale does not include a part for viola, Kari will have a rare opportunity to hear the orchestra from the audience when the DSSO plays on Feb. 27 and 28.

Brad Snelling is a librarian at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. He also writes historical notes for Matinee Musicale, the city's classical music series, which has been presenting concerts since 1900.

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