The month long Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts includes dance, theater, music, painting, poetry, even trapeze acts. It can be bewildering to navigate.
The idea for PIFA began as a festival about Igor Stravinsky. The early 20th century Russian composer came into his own in Paris in 1910, and embodies the characteristics of both the late Belle Epoque, and what PIFA is trying to present: collaboration, innovation, and exploration.
With $10 million from the late Leonore Annenberg, the festival expanded beyond Stravinksy to all of Paris after 1910, when the City of Light was the center of an artistic explosion that included Picasso, Gertrude Stein and the Ballets Russes. PIFA includes everything from the Pennsylvania Ballet performing for the first time with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to a French burlesque can-can.
But it all started with Stravinsky.
The composer forged his notes in dissonance. Whereas all Western music since Bach has been based on two scales–major and minor–Stravinksy (taking cues from Claude Debussy) experimented with pentatonic scales, whole-tone scales, octatonic scales.
“Stravinsky uses all of those scales, interchanges them, piles them on top of each other,” said David Ludwig, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute. “It creates a rich mishmash of sound.”
The distinctively unrelenting chord that pulses through the second movement of “The Rite of Spring” is created by stacking an E major chord onto a flattened E minor seventh chord. The dissonance is one of the reasons audiences rioted when the piece premiered in 1913.
“People were invested in what they were hearing back then. That’s thrilling,” said Ludwig, who called “The Rite of Spring” a bible for composers.
The making of “The Rite of Spring” for the Ballets Russes is fodder for a comic opera commissioned for PIFA by librettist Terry Teachout–also the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal–and composer Paul Moravec. “Danse Russe” is, in part, about the personality clash between Stravinsky and Ballets Russes producer Sergei Diaghilev, and the moment the audience rose up against them.
“It was not funny at all,” said Teachout. “Stravinksy was standing in the back, saying, ‘Go to hell! Go to hell!’ Diaghilev was, of course, delighted because this would sell tickets.”
After his work with the Ballets Russes, Stravinksy continued his profound career pursuing different musical muses.
“After ‘The Rite of Spring,’ he steps back and invents neoclassicism,” said Teachout. “But ‘The Rite of Spring’ was the one piece…as Nietzsche said,
he looks right into the abyss.”
In “The Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky dismantled old Russian folk songs and reconstructed them into modernist compositions. During PIFA, artists are encouraged to do the same to Stravinksy’s work.
For a piece called “Punch,” the Miro Dance Theatre in Philadelphia is collaborating with New York composer Zeena Parkins on a new version of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.”
“They are going to hear radical orchestrations of familiar melodies on one hand,” said Parkins. “Then from there it pulls away from it, and is inspired by orchestrations that are chopped up and redone.”
Parkins rerecorded a clarinet part from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” with two voices, overdubbed 16 times in the style of a Bulgarian women’s choir, a la Kitka.
“It’s amazing to sit with two scores side by side,” said choreographer Amanda Miller. “Oh my God, this is the same. And it’s totally different.”
Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” is based on Italian commedia dell’arte street theater, where actors wear masks and play out broad farces of sexual betrayal and petty crime.
“There are hundreds of Pulcinella stories,” said Miro co-producer and video artist Tobin Rothlein. “One was made famous by Stravinsky’s ballet, but we didn’t feel bound to that. We were looking at mythology and themes of the character. This is the origin of the lovable but mean trickster character.”
“And how you fall in love with that,” added Parkins. “You see the worst side, and you feel compelled to love them.”
In place of masks, the dancers in Miro’s “Punch” go 21st century: the use hand-held LCD computer screens programmed to show different faces and body parts. Rothlein is showing how technology is both a communication aid (NPR app, anyone?) and a hindrance to intimacy (Facebook, anyone?).
For his “Pulcinella,” Stravinsky collaborated with another major figure of Paris at the time: Pablo Picasso. After going through cubism, Picasso joined Stravinsky in neoclassicism.
Through myriad cultural connections, high and low, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts is attempting to re-create, and remix, a similar moment.