Igor Stravinsky

Oregon Symphony preview: puppety ‘Petrushka’

Creative director Doug Fitch enhances Stravinsky score with puppets and other theatrical elements

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.

Doug Fitch’s puppetry enhances Oregon Symphony’s ‘Petrushka’ this weekend.

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.

Continues…

Chamber Music Northwest: music of defiance and transcendence

Concerts of French music implicate sinner, soldier, and savior

Chamber Music Northwest celebrated Bastille Day 2018 with music by two of France’s greatest composers and two of the myriad composers they inspired. The first program featured mostly music by Stravinsky, who spent many of his most creative years in Paris, with a bit of Debussy, Jean Cartan, and Jacques Ibert. The second included more Debussy alongside quartets by New York composer Andy Akiho and Olivier Messiaen. Together, these concerts told a story of faith in defiance of war, hope in defiance of death, love in defiance of fear.

The first concert opened with a clarinet solo, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, performed not by CMNW Artistic Director and clarinetist extraordinaire David Shifrin but instead by one of his students. Seattle Symphony principal Benjamin Lulich’s placid and friendly performance of Stravinsky’s “written-out portraits of improvisation” offered highly detailed melodic contouring and an especially impressive a niente. A small start, but a good one.

Ransom Wilson played Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson

Another solo followed, and our tale of devils and soldiers commenced. Debussy’s famous ode to Pan—1913’s Syrinx—is standard flute repertoire, so it’s not really surprising that Ransom Wilson performed it from memory, but playing off book gave Wilson the chance to stalk the stage and work the crowd with his suggestive J. Peterman eyebrows, invoking the seductively devilish Pan with every cocky gesture.

Continues…