By James Bash
PORTLAND, Ore. – Puppet master Doug Fitch kicked things up a notch for the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Nov. 3. A New York-based visual artist and director, and co-founder of the company Giants Are Small, Fitch first presented his widely traveled concept in 2008 at the University of Maryland using videos and live camera feeds of puppets, orchestra, and the audience to enhance the familiar Russian folk tale that takes place at a St. Petersburg Shrovetide fair.
A magician introduces three puppets: Petrushka loves the Ballerina, but she loves the Moor. The Moor kills Petrushka, but Petrushka’s ghost has the last laugh. The concert stage was dominated by the videos, in a huge picture frame on the wall behind the orchestra. On the stage to the left and right of the orchestra were podiums that served as mini-stages for the puppeteers. A large snow globe helped to set the winter scene; the orchestra members wore knit caps and shawls.
Over the past two years, the Oregon Symphony has explored visual elements with music in its SoundSights series, kicking things off with a semi-staged production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle that featured glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. This was followed by Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with video animation by Rose Bond and Stravinsky’s Persephone augmented by the puppetry of Michael Curry. Last season, the orchestra presented Dipika Guha’s play Azaan, which dealt with the theme of immigration, a video work by Matthew Haber that dealt with the environment, and a newly commissioned work by Gabriel Kahane on the theme of homelessness. So, Portlanders have been well trained to expect something different this time around with Petrushka.
Colorfully constumed music director Carlos Kalmar took on the role of the Magician as he set the music in motion. Later he used a large gesture, as if casting a spell over the musicians, that resulted in lots of stage activity during the carnival scenes: The percussion battery made a toast with cheery beverages and arm wrestled; the trombonists pantomimed drinking beer; a female bass player pumped huge barbells. All the musicians moved around as in musical chairs, leaned left and right, and stomped their feet. Cartoon-like text bubbles were held aloft at certain points – sometimes making fun of musicians. Other brief scenes included an organ grinder, a peep show, and a couple of violinists knitting a scarf for a colleague.
Several large Russian nesting dolls were towed by the puppeteers. A bear lumbered in. The puppeteers played air-balalaika and showed off their juggling talents. To top all this off, a cameo appearance by Portland’s one and only Unipiper – riding around on his unicycle dressed in a kilt and Darth Vader mask while playing bagpipes (minus the flames) – interrupted everything, giving the show a keep-Portland-weird vibe.
As Stravinsky’s swirl of sound became more frantic, the audience did some rhythmic clapping, and the percussion ensemble bobbed back and forth with drinks while playing their instruments as well. The crowd screamed after the Moor fatally stabbed Petrushka. The puppeteers handed the Petrushka puppet to magician-conductor Kalmar, who fled the stage as Petrushka’s visage appeared on the picture frame.
The madcap antics resulted in loads of laughter and lots of distractions, but the orchestra didn’t miss a beat. The music for the festival had plenty of vim and vigor. Other highlights included the bassoon and piercing trumpet conveying the grief of Petrushka. The boorishness of the Moor was captured by woodwinds, piano, and brass, and the trumpet wonderfully elicited the dancing Ballerina. How the musicians executed their passages and acted at the same time was something to behold.
Leading up to Petrushka, associate conductor Norman Huynh led the ensemble in Honegger’s 1921 symphonic poem Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastorale). An expanding call from the French horn evoked the impression of a glowing sunrise over gently rolling clouds of the strings, and a bucolic landscape with woodwinds conveying birds darting in and out. All was done without the addition of visual imagery, and as the final tones faded away, Huynh put his fingers to his lips to shush the audience and exited, crouched in a conspiratorial manner.
The concert opened with Kalmar leading the orchestra in a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (Drumroll). It’s anyone’s guess how the drums should be played since the original timpani part has not survived. Jonathan Greeney, the orchestra’s principal, created a stirring improvisation that kicked off the piece. Playful, dance-like melodies contrasted delightfully with somber statement, augmented by fluttering flutes and a lovely solo for concertmaster Sarah Kwak.
The Haydn was followed by Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a short, lively work that he wrote in 1956 to celebrate the South African city’s 70th anniversary. It created a bright and loose-limbed ambience with the brass set against a lush sound from the strings. The percussion battery uncorked a lively rhythmic banter with claves, maracas, and castanets adding into the mix to build a rousing finale.