Saturday, June 22, 2013

Stravinsky at SFS

Rehearsal of Les Noces on the roof of the Theatre de Monte-Carlo, 1923
LoC photo

Busy week here, so I only made it to the second of the pair of Stravinsky programs at SFS. The first had Sacre, Agon, and Gil Shaham playing the violin concerto; the second had the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble in traditional songs and Les Noces, plus Sacre.

I'm sure Shaham was terrific, and I would have loved to hear that. However, Les Noces is about my favorite Stravinsky, undoubtedly owing to the formative experience of having turned pages for first pianist Tony Spiri in performances at Brandeis way back when. Slosberg Music Center's recital hall is tiny, seating about 200 maybe 400 or 450 people. Let me tell you, Les Noces, with a 60-voice chorus, four pianos, and whatever number of percussionists, is one noisy piece under any circumstances, but sitting right in the middle of it in a small hall? Wow.

I heard it enough times in rehearsal and performance to fall completely in love, and somewhere I still have a much-listened-to tape of one of those performances. (I was elsewhere on the program, singing the Debussy Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orleans with the Early Music Ensemble Chorus.) I saw Les Noces back in the 1999 Stravinsky Festival, on a program with Renard and, yes, Sacre.

The reason you don't hear Les Noces much is that it is difficult, and most choruses just can't schedule enough rehearsal time to work it over thoroughly. If you've got singers dedicated enough to learn the music at home, great; most amateur choruses don't. The Brandeis Chorus had a pair of two-hour rehearsals each week in the 1970s, if I'm remembering this correctly, and that was enough time for a good college chorus to learn the piece.

Last night's performance was absolutely fabulous, and one of a kind. The Pokrovsky Ensemble, with a dozen or 15 singers, hails from Russia, and sounds it, with that forward, nasal production and those Slavic vowels. The group has an enormous repertory of traditional songs, and they opened the program with a set of wedding-related music. Holy moly! Fantastic stuff, marvelously sung, in traditional peasant costumes with a lot of movement and acting.

I was skeptical about how well Les Noces would work in a big hall with a very small ensemble of singers. SFS chose to use some amplification, which was initially very bad, the voices out of balance with each other and one really blaring. Yes, they were using body mikes. Somebody adjusted that really fast. The pianos sounded a little recessed, which made me wonder whether MTT was deliberately keeping them down in volume.

The singers taking solo parts were somewhat variable; the soprano who took the very first sure had STYLE, but she was tough to hear even with the microphone. (Didn't they try this out in rehearsal?)

But whatever. They sang the piece from memory and with enormous musical fluency and verbal ease; with the men and women on opposite sides of the stage, you could see how much of Les Noces is a conversation, and sometimes a competition, between them. They moved in and out of formation, they moved in time to the music, and all in all, it was just wonderful. The energy, the joy, the way they embodied the primitive spirit of the piece: I've never heard anything like it.

As for Sacre, well, I think the best of the live performances of it that I have heard at SFS was the first, back in 1999. I was fairly close to the stage and the performance overwhelmed me, but it was, I think, also the first time I'd ever heard it live. (You have not heard Sacre until you've heard it live.) Last night was good enough, though I was surprised by the number of sloppy wind entries and flubs, and also by the violinist who entered a beat early in "Augurs of Spring." Still, there was plenty to write home about: beautiful alto flute playing Robin McKee (whom I did not recognize!) and fabulous Eb clarinet work from Luis Baez. The brass and percussion killed! I just wish I'd been closer than Row T.


Richard said...

I've conducted Les Noces twice, once with an undergraduate choir at Pacific Lutheran University (ca. 46 singers) and later with my professional chamber choir in Edmonton, Pro Coro Canada (32 singers--we paired it there with Carmina in the 2-piano percussion version).

I agree that it's absolutely a fascinating, difficult, and highly visceral piece. I'm trying to figure out how to do it in my present position at the University of North Texas (I'll manage somehow!). I dearly love it and would do it any time the opportunity presents itself.

I have the Pokrovsky Ensemble recording (which is odd for using electric pianos programmed to play together--I believe they did this for touring--would have loved to hear them doing it live with real pianos!), which certainly has authentic, native singing from singers whose primary background together was singing Russian folk music. While I couldn't attempt to get my singers to sing with their sound and vocal production, the pronunciation and style is a wonderful model. And I can imagine they do it by heart now--another wonderful thing.

I remember hearing and seeing Sacre at the San Francisco Opera house with the Joffrey recreating the original choreography in the early 90s (?). It was programmed with the original choreography, sets and costumes of Satie's Parade (sets by Picasso) and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Nijinsky's choreography--all done after Greek paintings on vases--with a perspective from the side only). THAT was a great thing to see and hear! When I listen to Sacre since then, I can't help but see some of that choreography along with the music.

I enjoy you reviews!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, wow, how wonderful to perform Les Noces twice.

The only time I sang Carmina was in the two-piano + percussion version. Aaaaaaaah, it sounded like Les Noces light to me!

UNT has a great music department! Hope you are able to do it again.

That is a fantastic Joffrey program. Would love to see the Sacre choreography live.

And thank you.

Vajra said...

I loved the Stravinsky program on Saturday. Loved. And the Pokrovsky Ensemble was simply joyous. And to hear Sacre live just knocked me out. I feel so fortunate.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I know exactly what you mean. :)