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Rethinking Stravinsky

Post-Classical Ensemble spotlights the Russian roots of the infamous composer of Rite of Spring

Photo: Tony Millionaire, License: N/A

Tony Millionaire


The Stravinsky Project

April 8-10 at various locations

Visit post-classicalensemble.org for full program

Don’t be embarrassed if all you know about composer Igor Stravinsky is Walt Disney’s dinosaur dance to Rite of Spring. Post-Classical Ensemble’s April 8-10 The Stravinsky Project can set you straight. This powerful combination of a Georgetown University symposium, Music Center at Strathmore concerts, and National Gallery film screenings reveals sides of Stravinsky that may shock newbies and music mavens alike. It’s also a great occasion for any modern dance lover, since Stravinsky collaborated with everyone from George Balanchine to the Ballets Russes. And the performance repertoire features a lineup of five Russian and Georgian pianists playing Stravinsky’s neoclassical works with the raw, earthy quality of Rite of Spring.

The Stravinsky Project seeks to display the unshakable influence a composer’s country has on his music, contextualizing and honoring his Russian heritage. P-CE music director and 2010 Wammie winner Angel Gil-Ordóñez, who will conduct the festival, is a Spanish specialist, but his provenance is fully international. The mentor who influenced him the most was Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, with whom he studied in Germany; in France, Gil-Ordóñez studied with Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis.

The performance’s five pianists—Alexander Toradze, Vakhtang Kodanashvili, Edisher Savitski, George Vatchnadze, and Genadi Zagor—all hail from Russia and Georgia. These pianists all grew up under the Soviet system before emigrating to the United States, while Stravinsky lived first in France then in the United States. This migratory internationalism points to the crux of this festival: Does nationality matter? After all, these pianists followed a similar route that Stravinsky himself took.

Gil-Ordóñez loves the excitement of working with performers who share the same nationality as the composer. “They feel at home,” he says by e-mail, “the same way, I feel at home conducting Spanish and Latin American music.” There’s a naturalness to the approach, a common linguistic thread that you might even hear as an outsider.

Having just heard the Leipzig Quartet execute an unearthly all-Beethoven performance with knife-point humor, levity, and darkness at the National Gallery last month, this reporter agrees there’s something about localized vernacular. The April 8 concert includes Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Stravinsky’s 1920 memorial work for Claude Debussy. Listen for Russian liturgical melodies to make their appearance in the final chorale.

The richest Russian vein in the concerts will be the seminal works Danse Sacrale and Les Noces. Danse Sacrale was born first as a dream inside Stravinsky’s head in 1910: A girl literally dances herself to death. Part of the inspiration came from the peasants on the estate Stravinsky had in Ustyluh where the first notes of the work were composed. Les Noces has similar roots. Sure, the subject matter is a wedding—not a sacrifice—but aurally you’d be hard pressed to think it an innocent peasant occasion of unbridled celebration. In Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, music critic, Emile Vuillermoz called Les Noces “a machine to hit, a machine to lash.”

“I try to blank my mind and concentrate on the music as much as I can,” Gil-Ordóñez says about conducting works such as Danse Sacrale or Les Noces. “No room for daydreaming here!”

The Stravinsky Projects’s tale won’t be told by music alone. Two amazing films have been unearthed for a free screening at the National Gallery. Filmmaker Richard Leacock will be best remembered for being one of the camera operators capturing Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar alight for D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 concert documentary Monterey Pop. Others remember him for his cinema vérité/direct cinema technique. Leacock died in Paris March 23 at 89, and used his friend Stravinsky as his subject.

Leacock’s 1966 TV film A Stravinsky Portrait finally receives its Washington, D.C., premiere at the National Gallery in a free screening as part of The Stravinsky Project. The film was made for German TV, and Parisian theaters later championed this intimate, all-access portrait. But it never made it to America. “I don’t think anybody will ever make a better film about Stravinsky or any functioning genius,” said Pennebaker, Leacock’s collaborator on the project, in a recent indieWIRE piece following Leacock’s death. “The more I saw it, the more I realized what a great film it is.”

In his day, Stravinsky was the Andy Warhol of classical music. Frank Sinatra wanted his autograph. Jackie Kennedy asked him to dine at the White House with Leonard Bernstein. (Stravinsky left early; he was drunk.) By the time Stravinsky came to the United States in 1939 he did far less composing and far more talking. According to Leacock’s memoirs, Stravinsky had been filmed by CBS and hated it. And he’d been filmed by Canada’s CBC and despised it.

Stravinsky, however, loved Leacock’s Portrait. In it, you see interviews with Stravinsky, his wife Vera, and the dubious collaborator Robert Craft at Stravinsky’s West Hollywood home. You follow along on a rehearsal with the Hamburg Orchestra, and watch Balanchine rehearse Les Noces with dancer Suzanne Farrell. Stravinsky moves from French, German, and Russian throughout, while Leacock whispers narrations along the way, layering the film with music, mysteries, gossip, and personal discovery.

Tony Palmer made Stravinsky: Once at a Border, the other documentary in the film program, in time for Stravinsky’s 1982 centennial. Many of the figures he captured were soon to pass: the daughter of Vaslav Nijinksy (who choreographed Rite of Spring); Marie Rambert, who aided in the choreography of the premiere; and three of Stravinsky’s children.

Palmer’s film features Les Noces, which will be performed at the Strathmore, in a wonderfully danced sequence set to the original score. And it also includes rare 1920s silent film footage of Stravinsky conducting in Russia. The film climaxes when it shows a physically extinguished Stravinsky display mentally perfect acumen while conducting the Berceuse and Finale from The Firebird. Palmer—a filmmaker who has tackled composers from Richard Wagner to John Adams, though Stravinsky is considered one of his finest portraits—will be on hand to talk about his work.

For the record, Gil-Ordóñez didn’t pay mind to films of Stravinsky conducting when preparing for the program, since “as usually happens with composers, they are music geniuses, but terrible conductors,” he says, “most of the time the worst interpreters of their music.” ?

The Stravinsky on Film screenings take place April 9 at the National Gallery from 1-6:30 p.m. The Stravinsky and the Piano music program takes place April 10 at the Music Center at Strathmore at 4 p.m. Visit strathmore.org for ticket details.

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