Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February Masterworks: Love Among the Puppets

Stravinsky & Nijinsky (as Petrushka) in 1911
This weekend's concerts bring three orchestral showcases to the Forum – the lively Mid-Winter Fair of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, Ravel's evocation of a sultry summer night in Spain, his Rapsodie espagnole which ends with another festival, and the celebration of love's joy (and love's pain) in the Suite from Richard Strauss' complicated comedy, Der Rosenkavalier, “The Knight of the Rose” (which you can read more about in this earlier post, here).

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in two performances – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – each one preceded an hour earlier by a pre-concert talk.

(In case you missed the news on Monday with all the fuss about who won Grammy Awards and all, Augustin Hadelich, who's appeared as soloist with the HSO on three separate occasions, won a Grammy for "Best Classical Instrumental Solo" for his new recording of the Violin Concerto by Henri Dutilleux. You can read about it, here!)

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With all the folk-pageantry swirling around in the two outer scenes, it's sometimes easy to overlook the core of the story which takes place in the middle two scenes.

Basically, Petrushka is one of those “boy-loves-girl / girl-loves-exotic-stranger / exotic-stranger-kills-boy” stories where Petrushka, a “sad-sack” of an introvert, loves the Ballerina who only has eyes for the dashing Moor.

Oh – and they're all puppets.

V.E. Makovsky's "Village Puppet Show" (1908)
Puppets have been part of our theatrical imagination for centuries – especially Punch & Judy in England, Pulcinella in Italy – and the idea of a puppet who could have the soul of a human isn't lost on someone who grew up watching Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Here is Igor Stravinsky's version of the story, from a Mosfilm DVD (I believe 1992) recreating the original 1911 sets and costumes and, I presume, most of Fokine's original choreography. While I can find little information about the dancers on-line, Andris Liepa is Petrushka and also the director of this film version (staged for the film, not a filmed stage performance) with the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Andrey Chistiakov conducting the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra.

Tableau #1 – Shrovetide Fair

It is the Russian version of Carnival or Madri Gras, the mid-winter Shrovetide Fair (Maslyenitsa), in which people from towns around come and partake of the festivities. In addition to drunken revelers (it is, after all, Mardi Gras) and a barker touting the wonders to be seen inside his booth, two rival buskers begin to dance at 1:57, one to a Russian folksong (“Toward evening, in rainy Autumn”) while playing a triangle (in the score, Stravinsky writes the organ-grinder's part into the flutes and clarinets) and the other to a bawdy French dance-hall song (“A woman with a wooden leg”). The activity of the fair erupts around them, sweeping them aside, until (at 4:50) drummers draw everyone's attention to the puppet theater where (at 5:00) we first see “The Charlatan” who, it turns out (at 5:30) plays a mean flute!

Then he presents his puppets, all hanging on hooks in their respective boxes: from left to right, the fearsome and exotic Moor, a beautiful Ballerina, and, finally, a poor, awkward, sad-faced clown named Petrushka.

At 6:51, he's brought them to life and they begin the “Russian Dance,” based on two more Russian folksongs (“A Linden Tree in the field” and “St. John's Eve”).

More drums mark the transition to the second scene.

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Tableau #2

Petrushka is tossed back into his box. We see it from his perspective as a kind of cell where he lives, the original scenery by Benois including an image of the All-Powerful Charlatan like a religious icon overseeing his every moment.

Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911
At 0:16, we hear the “signature sound” associated with Petrushka played on two clarinets – this became so famous it's actually known as “The Petrushka Chord,” a C Major chord superimposed with an F-sharp Major chord, two chords that in traditional classical music are about as far away harmonically as two chords could be! You'll hear it throughout the ballet, always in reference to Petrushka himself.

At 1:01, Petrushka gestures wildly at the – what, injustice of his being cooped up in a box? At being only a puppet and not a real boy with real human emotions?

Also, speaking of sound, note the prominent piano part through this scene. Stravinsky originally considered using this story as a work for piano and orchestra, a “concert piece” – but when he played his sketches for his friend Diaghilev (who'd just presented his first ballet, The Firebird and who was looking forward to a second ballet, the impresario urged him to turn it into a full ballet.

Petrushka is full of self-pity and the music allows us into his thoughts, apparently: from dainty ballet-like music, thinking of the Ballerina, we move on (at 1:57) to the exotic music of the Charlatan.

Petrushka hardly seems a great role for a dashing ballet dancer like the great Vaclav Nijinsky or the more recent Rudolf Nureyev, but the physical control of maintaining the loose body and limp arms of a puppet full of sawdust is a physical challenge all its own.

Then, at 2:40, the Ballerina slips into Petrushka's cell. He then protests his love and tries to impress her with his dancing. But, by 3:10, she has been so frightened by his excitement, she dashes from the room, leaving him to his dejection and rage. The sudden “carnival music” at 3:58 means he must catch a glimpse of the outside world just as, once again, we hear the drums, drawing our attention to the next scene.

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Tableau #3 & the beginning of Tableau #4

Here, we find ourselves in the more luxurious box where the Moor lives. Unlike Petrushka, he seems quite self-satisfied though the appearance of a coconut confuses him. Eventually, he decides if he can't figure out what it's for, he must bow down and (at 2:20) worship it.

At 2:40, the Ballerina pays him a visit, dancing while playing a wicked trumpet solo. At 3:27, they dance together (Petrushka apparently listening from the box-next-door). Notice how her dance theme in the trumpet and flute contrasts with the Oriental-sounding, low-register melody in a seemingly independent tempo in the English horn and cymbals, beginning at 4:12 and again at 5:02.

At 5:33, we hear Petrushka's chord again and he breaks into the Moor's box, intent on rescuing the Ballerina. A chase ensues (at 5:50) but the Moor proves to be too strong for Petrushka as he chases the clown out of the box. (At least that's the original stage direction which has some importance for the ending of the next scene: for some reason, here, the Moor tosses Petrushka out the door and sits back to enjoy some us-time with the Ballerina. I prefer, dramatically, the Moor, scimitar raised, chasing Petrushka out into the fair. You'll see why when it comes to the next scene...)

The drums once again mark the transition to the next and final scene which, due to some bad editing, continues in this clip.

Once again, at 6:38, we are back at the Fair (outside the puppets' boxes), and we see drunken coachmen and several nursemaids (the young ladies in pastel-colored coats) and at 7:44 we hear another Russian folksong in the oboe, “Down the Petersky Road.” Like most folksongs, it defies what Europeans call “development.” Stravinsky shows what a Russian composer can do to get some mileage out of a such a tune: you repeat it over and over but each time change the accompaniment and add even more brilliant colors in the orchestration.

At 9:45, the coachmen and the nursemaids are interrupted by... well, wait for the next clip, but while you're in between clips, listen to this recording of that folksong, “Down the Petersky Road,” sung here by the great Russian bass, Fyodor Chaliapin. He was a friend of Stravinsky's father, a leading bass at the Mariinsky Opera – one can imagine Stravinsky as a boy perhaps hearing these guys sing this popular folksong about a drunken coachman. Anyway, this recording was made in 1910, the year Stravinsky began composing Petrushka. What's that, like two degrees of separation?

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Tableau #4 – Evening at the Shrovetide Fair (continuing with the Entrance of... the Bear)

Yes, that's right, the dancers are interrupted by a bear, the typical “dancing bear” of Russian folk festivals, lumbering in with his handler – the bear is represented by the tuba solo at 0:15-0:45. (There's a story from a rehearsal – I forget which orchestra – when Stravinsky was conducting and stopped the tuba player after this brief solo and asked him to play it again; then, without comment asked him to play it again. Finally, the tuba player stopped and asked, “Maestro, could you please tell me what I'm doing wrong?” Stravinsky told him “Nothing – I've just never heard it played so beautifully.” True or not, it's a nice story.) 

The bear lumbers off and by 0:52 the bustle of the crowd returns as more revelers join the scene with a return to the Peterskaya Road song with coachmen (here in blue or red coats) and the grooms (in white shirts and brown vests) with the nursemaids. While the music reaches a joyous climax, everything is once again interrupted, this time (at 4:20) by mummers and a nasty-looking demon (at 4:35), no doubt, reminding everyone that Lent begins the next day. At 5:20, the rowdiness resumes.

But then something happens at 5:50 – a long trumpet tone alerts us to some activity back at the Charlatan's puppet theater. At 6:03, Petrushka erupts from the tent, chased by the scimitar-wielding Moor pursued by the distraught Ballerina. (This means that the earlier part of this scene was happening simultaneously with the events of the scene in the Moor's room, since the chase that ended Scene III continues now at the end of Scene IV.)

At 6:25, the Moor fells the poor clown with a single blow (the Petrushka Chord practically strangled in the clarinets). As Petrushka breathes his last, the crowd (and the police) gather round as the Charlatan comes out to see what's going on. At 8:05, after some incantations, he picks up the body but it is only a rag-doll puppet stuffed with sawdust which he tosses around to reassure the crowd (and the police).

The people disperse, enough excitement for one night, and the Charlatan drags the puppet back to his tent. But at 8:49, he hears the trumpet call associated with Petrushka and looks around, then sees Petrushka – or his ghost? – on top of the little theater, making wild, angry gestures (shaking his fists, thumbing his nose) at the futility of it all. The Charlatan runs away, not sure what he has seen is real or not.

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Though Stravinsky crafted a suite from his first ballet, The Firebird, he did not bother with Petrushka which is often played in the concert hall intact (or nearly intact with a few cuts in the final moments). But in 1947, largely for copyright reasons, he revised the score, reducing the instrumentation (one less woodwind, each; deleted the two cornets but had three instead of two trumpets; reworked the percussion section a little; deleted one of two harps), giving the piano a bit more to do, and simplifying a few of the metric details.

The film above uses the original scoring (though with some adaptations), but if you'd rather hear the 1947 version, here's a concert video. The Harrisburg Symphony will play this version at this weekend's concerts.

Here, Andris Nelsons, before having taken on his new position at the Boston Symphony, conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2011. (The performance ends at 34:39.)

There was another "version" of Petrushka Stravinsky made in 1921. Remember it had originally been conceived as a piece for piano and orchestra? Well, the composer took three “excerpts” from the complete ballet and turned them into a solo piano piece for Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. He used the Russian Dance from the end of Scene I, material from the 2nd Scene with Petrushka alone in his cell, and then chunks of the final scene to conclude, including an all-out transcription of the Dance of the Coachmen and the Nursemaids written on not two but four staves – along with a skin-ripping glissando to conclude.

Here is Artur Rubinstein in this live recording made at a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961.

I saw Rubinstein play an all-Chopin program in the mid-'70s when he was in his late-80s (and using Villa-Lobos' Polichinelle as an encore). In the late-'70s, I was brash enough to work on these “Three Movements from Petrushka” though I balked at performing them in public because I didn't have the stamina to get through the final 90 seconds... I know Rubinstein had played the piece but had never recorded it. So it was a delight to discover on YouTube a recording from this Carnegie Hall concert I'd never heard before.

And there's another two degrees of separation. 

- Dick Strawser

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