in: Reviews

January 25, 2011

Menagerie in Ballet and Song

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In the first Winter Special Event from Boston Chamber Music Society, held last year, pieces of chamber music were explored “through the lens of ideas about Musical Time,” as BCMS violist and MIT music faculty Marcus Thompson puts it. This year’s special event at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, a joint effort of BCMS and the MIT Music and Theater Arts Faculty on Saturday, January 22, was even more ambitious: to present collaborations of musical and visual works often created for ballets such as Ballet Russes and Ballets Suédois, along with song collections by Poulenc and Ravel first seen and heard in Paris when it was the hotbed of the new — just before, during, and after World War I.

“An Artistic Ménagerie: Collaborations of Mind, Hand and Imagerie, Paris1900-1926″ was divided into two halves: the first was a study of opposites. Ann Allen, adjunct lecturer at the MFA and member of the Council for the Arts at MIT, was calm and composed. Those who enjoy art lectures loved her informative slide show and appreciated what they saw later in the afternoon, when most of the artwork turned up again in a richer context. Jonathan McPhee, music director of Boston Ballet, was all ebullience and charm, telling tales of Stravinsky and his ballets. At one point when he started dancing the rhythms of “The Rite of Spring,” I thought he was just about to break into a flamenco. He talked more about the composers and their music; he was full of great ballet stories, so freshly told they sounded like delicious arts gossip. He likened the amazing confluence of the arts in Paris at this time to New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.

For those who came to hear the music, little else mattered. Most of the large crowd seem delighted to see the artwork with the poems and dances to which they “belonged.” To me, the artwork, lovely though it was, was generally a giant distraction. Perhaps had the performers been less than stellar, the artwork would have been more fun, but the performances of Randall Hodgkinson, Mihae Lee, and baritone David Kravitz were completely engaging. For this listener, the music was a powerful enough experience.

The whole program was the brainchild of violist Marcus Thompson, and his superb program notes (along with those of Steven Ledbetter) were a model of thoughtfully informative writing. The first piece on the program, (1917) by Eric Satie, was based on a theme by Jean Cocteau and featured curtain, sets, and costumes by Pablo Picasso; all were shown on the screen behind the afternoon’s excellent pianists, Hodgkinson and Lee.  Parade was one of many succés de scandale that Cocteau so enjoyed creating, and that Sergei Diaghilev had in mind for a new ballet when he commanded: “Astound me!”

Maurice Ravel’s charming Histoires naturelles (1906) was sung by the wonderful baritone David Kravitz, accompanied by Lee. These five charming songs, set to poems of Jules Renard, were illustrated by Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Latrec. They tell the short, almost scientifically precise tales of a peacock, a cricket, a swan, a kingfisher, and a guinea fowl. The woodcuts on the screen were lovely indeed, and in this case, the collaboration of piano and voice and art and words was, to me, a charming success.

Darius Milhaud’s famous (in its orchestral version) La création du monde (1923) was given a bang-up performance by the two pianists. Two sets of collaborations —  the pianists, who played remarkably together, and the original collaboration of Milhaud writing for Blaise Cendrars’ Ballet nègre in one act, with sets and costumes by Fernand Léger — provided synergy at its best.

More animals were featured in Francis Poulenc’s 1919 Le Bèstiaire ou cortège d’Orphée (1920), with six poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and woodcuts by Raoul Dufy. Here Kravitz wittily and wistfully described a camel, Tibetan goat, grasshopper, dolphin, crawfish, and a carp, with Hodgkinson accompanying. The twenty-year-old Poulenc chose six quatrains by Apollinaire, each a tad longer than a haiku. Here, the carp:

In your fishtanks, in your ponds

how long you live, carp!

Is it that death has forgotten you,

O fish of melancholy?

Before Apollinaire’s death at age thirty-five, Poulenc set thirty-five of his poems to music. Poulenc, who went on to earn the reputation as the finest musical interpreter of French poetry, was the youngest of “Les Six,” a group of composers which included Darius Milhaud, who were named and promoted as such by Cocteau.

Finally, the two pianists gave a spectacular performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”). The sets and costumes by Nicholas Roerich were among the constantly changing art-work. Everyone at the premiere in 1913 had an opinion of this work, whether they stayed to hear it or left in disgust or alarm. Jean Cocteau spoke of its “savage sadness” and its “little melodies that arrive from the depths of the centuries.” Saint-Saens called it “an insult to habit,” and Debussy called it “an extraordinary, ferocious thing … primitive music with every modern convenience.” Debussy nevertheless sight-read “Rite” with Stravinsky in this four-hand version.  (I would have liked to have been a fly on that wall!)

Again, most people seemed to feel that the artwork enriched their “Rite” listening experience; I found it distracting. When pianists play this piece this well, I need nothing else.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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