So let’s talk Stravinsky. Heard anything about Stravinsky lately? The centennial of “The Rite of Spring” this year seems to me to have occasioned more tributes, spin-offs, and homages than I can remember seeing since the last Mozart year (2006) and Bach year (2000). Forget Verdi, forget Wagner (both of whom are having bicentennials this year); we’ve seized on “Rite” as a watershed moment in the development of contemporary music, and it’s being feted as the gateway to modernity around the world. (I may have been reactionary in pointing out in the Washington Post some weeks ago that Diaghilev, who commissioned the piece, was in the business of creating commercial as well as artistic successes.)
The New York Philharmonic got its “Rite” stuff in at the start of this season. Tonight, it’s closing out the season with another look at Stravinsky ballets called “A Dancer’s Dream”: a multimedia puppet-choreography-video production of “The Fairy’s Kiss” and “Petrushka,” overseen by director Doug Fitch, known to Philharmonic audiences for “Le Grand Macabre” and “The Cunning Little Vixen” in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
What the website doesn’t tell you, though, is that this “Petrushka” originated at the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra in 2008, where Fitch was an artist in residence. (The Philharmonic does credit James Ross, UMD’s director of orchestral activities, as the “music consultant.”)
The University of Maryland’s orchestra program has been doing some impressive work in exploring different ways of approaching concert performance. I still count their choreographed version of “Afternoon of a Faun” among the most memorable orchestral experiences I’ve had. With these New York Philharmonic concerts (which will be distributed to movie theaters and other screening venues around the country in the fall) they also establish themselves as a laboratory for developing new work. University opera companies have been exploring this role for some time (UMD’s own Maryland Opera Studio presented three world premieres between 2004 and 2010 -- more than many professional opera companies during the same period); but I believe that it’s a more recent development for university and conservatory orchestras. The New World Symphony, which is a training institution for young professionals, has been the strongest leader in this area that I know of to date.
I trust that not many people who saw UMD’s “Petrushka” will also see the Philharmonic’s; but the point is not necessarily to chart the genesis of the work. The point is that the new work is happening, and being encouraged, on several levels. The more that projects like this can lose their status as one-off outliers and be shown to have legs, the more impetus other programs will have to follow suit. Do I think that all orchestra concerts should look like this? Of course not. But it would be great if such experiments were a more frequent option for subscription audiences.
Above: I’ve posted this before, but I still consider this “Afternoon of a Faun,” conceived and performed at the University of Maryland, to be among my top orchestral experiences.