By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – For its overarching perspective on Igor Stravinsky’s post-Rite of Spring explorations, as well as its visual and musical excellence, the Seattle Symphony’s April 26 program in Benaroya Hall was an ear- and eye-opener. Beginning with Stravinsky’s short setting of the Song of the Volga Boatmen (1917) and concluding with an astounding performance of the rarely seen 50-minute Persephone (1933-34), the evening revealed the vast scope of Stravinsky’s interests and values, his Russian and classical roots, and the depth of his imagination.
The unusual stage setting, which was visible all evening, was designed for Persephone by Michael Curry, whose credits included The Lion King on Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, the Metropolitan Opera, and the International Olympic Committee. For a symphony environment, it was extraordinary. Seizing the audience’s attention, the set occupied what became the back half of the stage and required a double extension out into the hall to accommodate the entire orchestra. (Due to the extensions, my row N seat was in the 8th row.) Consisting of two large trees, one on either side of the stage, with their fantastic array of intertwining roots framing hidden risers designed for the choruses in Les noces and Persephone, the set was backed by a huge orb that morphed into a moon thanks to projected colors and craters. From the moment audience members entered the environment, the sense of anticipation and delight was palpable.
Although the set merited star billing, it was hardly the only star on the program. Before Persephone came pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing in the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24) and the Moscow-based Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble plus Hamelin and three other pianists – Cristina Valdés, Jessica Choe, and Li-Tan Hsu – in a rousing performance of Les noces (“The Wedding,” 1914-23). As with the recent world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, which was introduced by Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with pianist Jeremy Denk as soloist, the Seattle Symphony proved itself both generous in its dispensation of riches and perspicacious in its long view of symphonic programming.
To start the evening with the three-minute setting of Volga Boatmen helped set the tone for all that followed. Stravinsky’s arrangement came about when Serge Diaghilev, who was about to bring his Ballets Russes to Rome, realized that in the wake of the Russian Revolution it was unwise to open the concert with the formerly obligatory performance of the Russian National Anthem, which begins “God Save the Czar.” As Diaghilev was a political conservative, he beseeched his fellow anti-revolutionary, Stravinsky, to compose an alternative to the “Workers’ Marseillaise” then in vogue. Stravinsky’s sly choice not only seemed “of the people” but also underscored his love of Russian culture and fondness for primitivism.
The music also reminded us of the rough, angular darkness at the root of much Russian music and culture. Kudos to Elena Dubinets, vice president of artistic planning and creative projects, and Ludovic Morlot, music director and conductor, for following Volga Boatmen with, first, the neoclassical, modernist, angular, and often driven concerto and then the driving, tradition-based Les noces.
The only downside to the concert’s first half was that it took place in front of Curry’s set. Apparently designed without consideration for how it might affect the hall’s acoustic, the set exacerbated Benaroya’s inherent dryness and lack of warmth. Hamelin’s pianism may have been superb, but the sound was so flattened by the fantastic set behind him that it lost some of its individuality and impact.
Not that the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is an easy ride. Even the pre-concert lecturer, Larry Starr, chair of the American Music Studies Program at the University of Washington School of Music, acknowledged that it required at least three listenings before he could begin to appreciate its beauty. Although the concerto’s somber opening, which sounded rather leaden in this environment, seemed like an extension of Volga Boatmen, it soon gave way to an astounding mixture of jagged, highly syncopated rhythms that occasionally seemed droll and circus-like. The second movement was shocking in its abrupt alternations between touching romanticism, funereal seriousness, fierce modernism, and humor. By the time the 20-minute work ended, it had become clear that if one of Stravinsky’s goals was to demonstrate that he still had the potential to shock, he succeeded.
Nothing could be more conservative and “of the Old Order” than the traditional gender roles and expectations at the core of Les noces. Not only were the seven men of the traditionally attired Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble segregated on stage right and counterbalanced by the seven women on stage left, but they also juxtaposed their traditional masculine gestures and body language with those of the high-pitched women, who often emitted high “yips” while singing in nasal tones similar to women in Balkan ensembles. Although the Ensemble would have benefited from the deep bass voices that distinguish other genuinely Russian ensembles, and it desperately needed a more reverberant acoustic to push some of the shallower male voices out into the hall, the authentic energy and rawness of the performance made such considerations secondary. As long as you could make peace with its absurd sexism, it was fabulous.
Then came the far more refined, French-language Persephone, to a text by André Gide. Even after I had read in the program that the exquisitely poised narrator, Pauline Cheviller, and her similarly dressed dancer double, Anna Marra, would at times be joined by a life-size puppet ballerina, I was not prepared for Marra’s first appearance. After seeing the puppet, who was controlled by Matthew Brooks and Katie McClenahan, dance with astounding grace and then fly through the air, I at first did not realize that it had ceded to Marra, whose costume included lines where the puppet’s arms and legs had hinges. It was a brilliant coup de theatre, and earned Curry yet another much-deserved feather in his fantasy cap.
To have Henry Cotton, the fine dancer who represented Pluto, emerge from the belly of a huge Pluto puppet manipulated by puppeteer Marcus Gannuscio was another inspired move. Equally delightful was puppeteer Aaron Coffeen, who embodied the fantasy Mercury Deer who walked around the stage. Several large silk images of gods and goddesses that flew through the air added to the wonder of it all.
Between the mesmerizing visuals, appearances by ten of Persephone’s handmaiden nymphs, the beautifully voiced Northwest Boychoir, and the Seattle Symphony Chorale, one may wonder if Stravinsky’s music was crowded into second place. Hardly. Thanks in no small part to the contributions of the Seattle Symphony’s featured artist, tenor Kenneth Tarver (Eumolpus), the grace, beauty, and classical restraint of Stravinsky’s score came to the fore.
Even if the rhythms remained angular, the music’s countless felicities underscored how Gide had softened the Greek legend, replacing Persephone’s grave abduction into the underworld with her compassionate decision to go there of her own free will in hope of supporting the pitiable souls consigned to its darkness. A perfect neoclassical cap to a program that began harshly, with music that celebrated things “as they were,” it sent the audience smiling into the streets, past the scores of homeless people who serve as ever-present reminders of the realities that set the stage for the Russian Revolution.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.