Complete performances of Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 Ballets Russes commission Zhar-ptitsa/L’oiseau de feu/The Firebird aren’t an everyday occurrence in Boston, and still less so as an actual ballet. Esa-Pekka Salonen guest-conducted the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2012; the most recent major local dance performances have been Christopher Wheeldon’s Boston Ballet commission in 1999 and the Mariinsky Ballet’s presentation of the Mikhail Fokine original during its 2003 visit to the Wang Theater. This Saturday, June 18th, the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, under music director Cynthia Woods, will play the full score on a program that will also include Antonín Dvořák’s 1896 tone poem Vodník, or The Water Goblin. And this Firebird will be danced—at least some of it, since former Boston Ballet corps member Gianni Di Marco is choreographing “excerpts” and dancing himself as Kashchei the Deathless. The orchestra will be on stage at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, and the costumed dancers, from Festival Ballet Providence, will perform along a strip at the front of the stage. The performance is a collaboration between CSO and a new organization, NorthEast ArtSpace.
JG: So, what is NorthEast ArtSpace?
CW: NEAS was founded by Ruth and William Whitney. In addition to heading this organization, Ruth is also our Firebird, while her husband, William, is a longstanding member of CSO. So the collaboration had a very organic beginning. Here is their mission statement:
“NorthEast ArtSpace is a newly registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to fostering and facilitating interdisciplinary performances in the Boston performing and fine arts community. We are very proud to be facilitating this collaboration between the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, choreographer Gianni Di Marco, and dancers from Festival Ballet Providence for the inaugural presentation of our newly re-branding. ArtsConnect focuses on realizing the ambitious artistic visions of our clients and collaborators by bringing together the critical personnel and resources necessary to bring any production to the stage. We are very excited to kick off this new project by presenting The Firebird with original choreography, innovative staging, and full orchestra!”
Can you talk a bit about the history of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra? Where do the players come from? Are they professional?
The Cambridge Symphony is in its 41st season. Our mission has always been to enrich the lives of our community and players through music. Our players mainly come from north of the river, but we also have some who come from as far as Quincy and Dorchester. Which isn’t so far, till it’s rush hour. They’re a mix of music teachers, players just out of conservatory taking auditions, and people for whom music has always been a vital part of their life, but perhaps not their profession. The one thing that unites them is a deep love of music, the willingness to put a great deal of time into it, and a wish to learn and have new musical experiences.
You have a dance background. Can you say something about that?
When I was three years old, my parents enrolled me in a Kodály music-and-motion-based pre-school. From then on, I was pretty much in love with music and moving to music. For most of my childhood I studied jazz and classical ballet alongside piano and violin. In college, it was African dance with live drummers. I got a great deal of joy out of all of it. I think that is a part of my love for conducting (along with other reasons), that place where the music is so strong it forces us to move and breathe and just be within it.
You’ve called Firebird, which preceded Le sacre du printemps, a revolutionary work. Can you elaborate? How will your interpretation be different?
Well, I think with Firebird we see a young composer at the bridge of two worlds. Clearly, the romantic influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, is still very present, along with a very 19th-century approach to melody and gesture. But we also see someone looking forward, using polymeters and a greatly expanded vocabulary of harmony to create a new range of sounds and expressions, with hints of impressionism and expressionism winding their way throughout. To our 21st-century ears it may sound conservative, but in 1910 it, like the rest of the world, was bubbling with change.
How is conducting for dancers different from just conducting the orchestra? What adjustments do you have to make? If the dancers are, in this case, performing in front of the orchestra, does that mean you’ll have your back to them?
The most important thing when working with dancers is hitting the right tempos, so that there is no risk of injury. It’s the most practical and primary concern. So then the challenge becomes to create a musical performance that moves and breathes and has line within a very specific box. And yes, I will be turned mostly towards the orchestra, though as in any performance with a soloist, I will be angled out, so as to stay connected with the dancers as well.
No disrespect to your players, but this isn’t the BSO. Does the Firebird score pose particular problems for them?
Yes, we aren’t the BSO, that is true. But when I program, I don’t really think of things that way. I look for repertoire that challenges us, inspires us, and helps us grow as musicians. And I certainly think that Firebird has been an incredible, wonderful challenge for us. To meet it, we have been rehearsing for over two months—unlike the BSO, who would pull it together in under a week—as well as bringing some of the city’s top professionals in to give master classes to help us get the “insides” of the parts right. That and just a lot of individual practice.
And can you say something about the other work on the program, Dvořák’s The Water Goblin? Why did you choose it?
The Water Goblin is one of three tone poems that Dvořák wrote based on traditional Czech fairy tales. While not as well known as some of his other works, each one is a tiny gem of the repertoire, and I program them when I can. I thought the influence of folk history tied the two works together nicely, while being different enough stylistically to give the concert some variety.
Gianni, I know your wife, Adriana Suárez, was the opening-night Firebird in Boston Ballet’s 1999 staging of Christopher Wheeldon’s version. Did you dance in that as well?
GDM: Yes, I did. I danced Kashchei and also one of the Monsters.
How much dancing will there be in this performance? How many dancers will you have? How did you decide which sections to choreograph?
There will be about 25 minutes of dancing. [Note: That represents about half the score.] I will have eight dancers including myself. The sections I chose to choreograph were the ones that would tell a story without using all of the music.
How does your Firebird differ from Fokine’s or, for that matter, Wheeldon’s?
The difference is that this is Gianni’s version! No sets, not so many dancers, but a lot of great music from Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.
How are you dealing with having to choreograph for a narrow strip of space?
Every challenge always brings more creativity into play. We cannot always get everything we want, but the important thing is that we can express the music through our movement even on a small stage.
See related review here.
Cambridge Symphony Orchestra: “The Firebird (Complete Ballet)”
Saturday June 18, 8 p.m., Kresge Auditorium at MIT / Tickets here (www.cambridgesymphony.org)
Dvořák: The Water Goblin
Stravinsky: The Firebird
Cynthia Woods, musical direction; Gianni Di Marco, choreography
Ruth Whitney, Firebird; Alan Alberto, Prince Ivan; Gianni Di Marco, Kashchei the Deathless; Jaime DeRocker, Princess Vasilisa
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.