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U-Md. Symphony's Playful 'Petrushka' Breaks the Classical Mold

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

Some people like the conventional trappings of your standard orchestral concert: Dress nicely and sit in worshipful silence while a group of black-clad musicians perform. To them, however, James Ross, director of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, issued a prophylactic apology prior to the orchestra's Friday-night performance of Stravinsky's "Petrushka" at the Clarice Smith Center -- which was decidedly, even exuberantly, unconventional in its anarchic, foot-stomping wildness.

With this performance, Ross was implicitly targeting that obscure object of desire for classical music performers and programmers: the unreached audience, those people who we know would love this music if only we could get them past a presentation that can seem, to some newcomers, stiff and uncongenial. What, says many an orchestra novice, am I supposed to be getting out of this?

The point, of course, is actually to listen to what's happening, which I believe can be difficult for both sides of this putative camp. I always wonder how much classical music fans are actually hearing in the familiar music they enthusiastically welcome (such as Beethoven's Second Symphony, which opened Friday's program); those who conduct along with vigor might not be listening with any more penetration than those who are coming to it new.

Did such fans notice that Friday's performance of the Beethoven Second, though willing, was rather ragged, while "Flos Campi" -- a piece woven around excerpts from the "Song of Solomon," though words are never actually uttered by the chamber choir onstage -- had a smoother performance? (Daniel Foster, principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra, was an attractive soloist in a work that is so aching to be palpably lovely that it gets a little cloying.)

It's a mistake to second-guess the audience, and yet some of that second-guessing inevitably occurs when one deliberately departs from standard concert form. "Project Petrushka," as the UMSO dubbed this exploration of the Stravinsky work, is the equivalent of removing the gold frame from an Old Master painting and seeing how it holds up in a more open environment. Led by Doug Fitch -- an artist-in-residence at the university whose portfolio includes stage direction and puppetry, and who has experimented with visual interpretations of musical performance before (with, among others, the NSO) -- the performance included puppets, handheld video cameras and a certain amount of controlled chaos in the orchestra.

The players evoked the atmosphere of the Shrovetide fair in which much of this ballet is set by wearing boots, hats and scarves; eating baked goods and drinking tea; and milling about to change seats between each of the piece's four sections (something Ross encouraged the audience to do as well, though no one actually took him up on it).

There were some very good things about this unconventional presentation. The best was that the main focus was on the music: The visuals mainly served to enhance what you heard rather than (as so often happens) distracting your attention from it. For a trumpet solo, the trumpeter stood up amid several people showing him off with a flourish of hands, as if presenting a sideshow act; the result was that you really noticed the solo, a moment that in standard performance passes many people by.

A byproduct of this approach was that the orchestra was genuinely involved in the music. Ross said in his prefatory comments that the players had had considerable input into the things they did onstage, and it showed: Not only did they look as though they were having fun, but they also sounded like it. What in the Beethoven was ragged translated here into brash exuberance that was right in keeping with the young Stravinsky (this was actually the 1947 version of the work). The concertmaster, standing like a Gypsy fiddler for her solos, played with fierce assurance; the brass, muted to the point of inarticulacy in the Beethoven, were, well, brassier.

Certainly campy moments occurred, which I think was part of the point, but which might have gone a little too far for some tastes. Ross was a player in the drama, his face projected up over the stage at some iterations of the sinister theme in the music. At one point he leapt high in the air and right off the podium, like an evil monkey, before penetrating the orchestra and allowing one flute solo to be conducted by a magic baton that no one was actually holding. At another point, he cued the audience to shout loudly (a moment that was briefly rehearsed in his comments beforehand), just before the entrance of a large bear, who unfortunately looked less like a symbol of nature than like a team mascot. It was a virtue of Fitch's concept, however, that there was a homemade quality to the presentation: The crude, hand-held quality of the special effects reflected an aspect of the music.

I was inclined to label this a successful if not flawless attempt at invigorating music. The audience generally liked it. The orchestra had fun. But then I was confronted by the specter of my own younger self, rising up like Petrushka's ghost. At 20 or 22 I, an uptight purist, would have found such an approach horrifyingly populistic, a betrayal of the high vision I held, at that time, of art. It was for me a moment of rueful recognition that this kind of thing might play better to the older and wiser, and more relaxed, than to the high-minded young with an interest in classical music. Which is no reason not to continue such experiments. The music, certainly, is good enough to take it.

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