The Russian Soul and The Vivid Disguise of Despair

Arts / Article

By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer

The New World Symphony embarked on its 25th season with The Russian Soul as motif and figurehead. The festive atmosphere that permeated opening night posed an invitation to play with meanings and coincidences at a concert that was simultaneously conventional and wisely programmed. Stravinsky’s Circus Polka at the New World Center, photo by Rui Dias-Aidos

Throughout two centuries, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky have embodied the Russian spirit, and Petrushka and the Fourth Symphony have become justifiably audience favorites. Both incarnate a Slavic savage pathos tempered by incisive touches of color that define situations and paint scenes evocative of similar essence and lineage: those of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Essentially, both masterpieces comprise musical kaleidoscopes that can put the finest orchestra to the test and, with one third of the New World Symphony’s musicians making their debut on opening night, the ensemble achieved a superlative performance.

As established official opening to the season, Michael Tilson Thomas led audience and musicians in the Star-Spangled Banner in the better-known arrangement by Sousa than Stravinsky’s controversial one. He then took on the curious Circus Polka (1942) that Stravinsky, who had recently immigrated to the United States, composed for Balanchine. Commissioned by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me” asked Balanchine on the phone, “For whom?” replied Stravinsky “For some elephants” said the choreographer “If they are very young elephants, I will do it was his reply.) it premiered at the Madison Square Garden with 50 ballerinas and as many pachyderms in a tour de force that enjoyed more than 400 performances. Matching the orchestra’s enthusiastic tackling of Stravinsky’s abandon was Emily Eckstein’s delightful animation. Projected on the auditorium’s large screens, it took ideal inspiration from the visual legacy of constructivism and Oskar Schlemmer’s dancers.

As if he were uncovering one matryoshka doll after another, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Petrushka (1947 version), with infallible theatrical instinct, capturing all the magical – and no less sinister – world of the carnival. He emphasized one of the composer’s distinctive traits, that of being a Russian-turned-American, a European in California as crucible of cultures and societies, and suggesting also the influences he would exert on Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein without neglecting his roots in the Russian ballet and the neoclassicism he literally embodies. The flute and brass solos, among the many brilliant vignettes that pepper the work, were expertly executed. Also welcome were the visuals that brightened the already multicolor score as the onscreen text that aided understanding and linked the music with the cartoon animation, at the time a great ally of classical music.

It wasn’t the ghost of the unhappy puppet vociferating his legendary Petrushka chord, but the ghosts of Tchaikovsky’s ballets that seemed to parade by in the waltz of the Fourth Symphony’s first movement. Displaying luster and power; the NWS’s strings softened in transparent pianissimi at the same time conveying the essential Slavic wild vein. The strings also succeeded in performing as one man, during both the famous pizzicato of the third movement and the powerful escalate, almost processional, surge of the second.

The ominous “fate” fanfares that introduced the piece – turbulent as the year in which it was composed and its bleak reflection – showed some glitches in the brass section, but the impeccable refrain of the oboe and the precise contribution of the piccolo made up for them. A milestone in Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, it connects periods and styles, and even finds echo in Mahler, another unusual angle that MTT took sagacious care to illuminate. On the last movement, as autobiographical as his opera Eugene Onegin, the conductor stamped a vertiginous tempo not only as appropriate finale but also remitting to the demented Stravinskian carnival of the beginning. Full circle.

Behind all such orchestral opulence, the two pièces de résistance of the night share a veiled secret that unites them inside and out: both disguise with exquisite detail and poetic lyricism the anguish of two marginalized creatures, misunderstood pariahs, one fictional (the puppet Petrushka), the other real (the composer Tchaikovsky). As a fine musical architect, Michael Tilson Thomas explored this vein, that of the mask of tragedy behind the comedy, and followed that invisible thread, steering it in a superb crescendo until the cataclysmic finale. The orchestra responded with palpable enthusiasm and veritable joy on the faces of the newcomers who, along with the rest of the crew of the “NWS Training Ship”, have set sail on a year of adventurous, unremitting music.