Orchestra-Ballet's "Pulcinella' collaboration (1st review)

What was PIFA thinking?

Leonard: Triumph over acoustics.
Leonard: Triumph over acoustics.

Whether or not, as Kimmel president Ann Ewers announced, it is truly the "first annual Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts" or simply a massive one-off, Thursday's opening night certainly radiated a festive glow.

The Kimmel lobby, dominated by a charmingly kitschy Eiffel Tower model, swirled with tuxedoed and be-gowned Social Register types, happily tipsy from the requisite cocktail hour. The main event, an unprecedented collaboration between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Ballet, seemed designed to dazzle.

The performance could be reviewed at a number of levels. At the very least, there was music, dance and social intercourse to observe. I will limit myself to the music.

My one comment on the visual aspects of the performance is that although I found them stimulating and entertaining, they didn't detract from the music making, an obvious desired result for such a venture. A synergy was achieved that benefited both art forms.

Familiar music, but...

The program consisted of two works of about the same length— Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat and Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella— but only the latter was danced to. The Falla music is very familiar in the guise of a shorter suite but rarely performed complete, as it was Thursday. It was an odd choice, for a couple of reasons.

First, why program a complete ballet score like Falla's in a concert that's ballyhooed as an historic co-production of a ballet company and an orchestra, and then omit the dancing?

This misstep led to a musical problem as well. Complete ballet scores are rarely performed at symphony concerts, because so much of the material depends on the visual tie-in of the dancing. This is why the great ballet music of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and yes, Falla, is much more effective in shorter versions that the composers carefully edited for stand-alone orchestra performances.

Penetrating voice

This extended edition of The Three-Cornered Hat, conducted by Rossen Milanov, had a stumbling rhythm, sounding under-rehearsed in spots. It shouldn't have; this is very familiar fare for the Philadelphians, having been a favorite (in the suite form) of the Orchestra's frequent guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.

Nevertheless, I derived at least one benefit from hearing the complete score, and that was the opportunity to hear the otherwise omitted vocal music. Falla's music for low female voice has something of the folksy intensity of traditional zarzuela singing, and was strikingly rendered by Isabel Leonard, who displayed a rare ability to get her voice to penetrate Verizon Hall's vast and sometimes murky acoustics.

Shades of Amadeus

Stravinsky's Pulcinella, ironically, is one of those rare ballet scores that can easily stand alone as a concert work at full length, without the dancing. I'm reminded of the famous interaction depicted in Peter Schaffer's Amadeus, when Mozart responds to the Emperor Joseph's complaint that there are "too many notes" by saying, "There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less."

Stravinsky is, indeed, the most Mozartian of modern composers, by virtue of the exquisite textures of his orchestral writing, combined with an uncanny economy of expression. You can hear this in all of his music. But in Pulcinella, the music's 18th-Century thematic origins (from Pergolesi and others) make the connection especially vivid.

As in the Falla, the Orchestra's playing (in this case of a drastically reduced ensemble) had tentative moments and lacked sparkle, but the wondrous music carried the day.♦

To read a dance critique of Pulcinella by Jim Rutter, click here.

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