This weekend, in the season’s first batch of SoundStories concerts, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra performs Petrushka in a puppety production directed by visual artist Doug Fitch. The OSO excels at this “classical-plus” sort of thing: classical music plus movies, classical music plus theater, classical music plus rock music, classical music plus animated light show. And it’s funny how the last time OSO brought in puppets, that was a Stravinsky show too: last year’s Perséphone.
Igor Stravinsky’s musical score for Petrushka is endearing and entertaining, but pretty bland compared to the composer’s best stuff; that’s what makes it an ideal candidate for the classical-plus treatment (same goes for the Perséphone score, for that matter). It’s far from Stravinsky’s most boring score (that would of course be Pulcinella), but sitting as it does between the backward-looking genius of 1910’s Firebird and the forward-looking genius of 1913’s Rite of Spring, Petrushka (composed 1910-11) is often remembered—at least by music nerds—as “the one where Stravinsky discovered polytonality.”
It has no moments as memorable as Firebird’s “Berceuse” and “Infernal Dance,” nor anything as thrilling as Rite’s thunderously morbid dance rhythms and oh-so-catchy primitivistic earworms. But none of that is really a fair criticism, because despite the music’s genesis as a sort of battle between piano and orchestra, Petrushka is (as Diaghilev correctly intuited when he first heard it) primarily theater music. We are not meant to sit passively in a concert hall (or on the sofa) and simply take it in through our lazy ear holes. We are meant to watch it. We are meant to feel it.
It’s also important to remember that Petrushka is not really about Stravinsky anyways: as Fitch points out in this sound-buggy video, the original ballet was a collaboration between artists working in varied disciplines—most importantly librettist slash set- & costume-designer Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine—and that interdisciplinary complexity carries forward into his integrative production with the OSO.
Because Fitch’s Petrushka, originally developed at the University of Maryland and since streamlined for travel, is more than a puppet show. His production (presumably even in the reconfigured touring version he’s bringing to the Schnitz this weekend) retains the theatrical ballet vibe by directing the musicians to get up and move around, stand up for solos, dance and scream, put on silly hats. All of this also adds to the story’s carnival spirit; the action takes place at the fair, after all. The OSO is hardly a staid and uptight orchestra in the Old World tradition, but they’re still considerably more formal than, say, The Polyphonic Spree. It’ll be amusing to watch them put on costumes and fake beards to get all (belatedly) Halloweeny and celebratory.
Fitch and his company Giants Are Small have done a ton of these kinds of shows, by the way, including a few other Stravinskies (Mavra, The Soldier’s Tale), productions of Puccini and Mozart, Weill and Tchaikovsky, even some Elliott Carter and György Ligeti’s smorgasbord of dissonance and weirdness Le Grand Macabre. Apparently he wants to do The Magic Flute next; we’d all watch the hell out of that right?
Diversity Deficit, again
The rest of the program doesn’t really matter, but it could have (and should have). The Petrushka concerts open with another Haydn symphony (the “Drumroll”), the orchestra’s second in as many months, the symphonic equivalent of opening with a bunch of Credence covers. They’ll follow up Papa Haydn with William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture and Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, both of which I’ll have forgotten about by the end of this sentence.
Wouldn’t this have been a fine opportunity to play a fanfare or tone poem by Joan Tower, a living composer with a more than passing connection to Stravinsky? Or how about something by Lili Boulanger? Or a Florence Price symphony? How sweet would it be to see an African-American woman composer on the program, not in celebration of Black History Month or International Women’s Day (although those are nice too) but just as a matter of course? Do we need any similar excuse to hear—sorry, what were their names again?—Walton and Honegger? For that matter, do we really need to hear Haydn again? Of course, I really shouldn’t complain about this particular symphony: timpanist Jon Greeney, one of the finest musicians in the band, gets something of a spotlight (ah, but on the other hand).
The Tchaikovsky-Drake mashup is coming right up, on November 8—two days after the midterm elections, an oddly appropriate time to take in conductor/composer/arranger Steve Hackman’s pitting of the Canadian rapper’s music against the queer Russian’s Fifth Symphony, a “complete resignation before Fate.” (Read Artswatch’s preview of Hackman’s previous OSO mashup earlier this year.) After that, November 17-19 brings a big burly Beethoven/Bruckner brouhaha—Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony plus pianist Ingrid Fliter performing Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, all under the baton of guest conductor Alexander Soddy.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.