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Gershwin, Stravinsky, Harrison festivals

During my tenure as Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM, I was handed an opportunity to refashion the orchestra’s mission. In the course of two years, it had been abandoned by more than two-thirds of its subscribers: there was nothing left to lose. I proposed making all the programming thematic and inter-disciplinary. Harvey Lichtenstein, BAM’s mastermind, said yes.
One of the Brooklyn Phil festivals I concocted was “Flamenco,” in 1997. It proved a personal watershed. For one thing, I discovered that Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo, with the addition of a profound flamenco cantaora (Carmen Linares) and a sublime Hispanic dancer (Pilar Rioja), became an existential epiphany rather than a tuneful diversion: my understanding of Spanish music was changed forever. For another thing, “Flamenco” put me permanently in touch with a network of Spanish artists and intellectuals, including the conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez, who had a fledgling DC chamber orchestra he called “musica aperta.”
A few years later, I left BAM: running an orchestra there had become financially unsupportable. Around the same time, Angel invited me to partner him in transforming “musica aperta” into a chamber-orchestra version of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. This is how Post-Classical Ensemble was born, in 2003.
Last week, we announced our eighth season. It comprises a robust series of festivals celebrating an assortment of iconic twentieth century composers: George Gershwin, Lou Harrison, and Igor Stravinsky
A chamber-sized version of the Brooklyn Phil, it turns out, is a viable proposition. Angel and I are one-half of a skeletal staff. We hire musicians as needed, and enjoy the loyalty of DC’s top free-lancers. We are popular with local presenters, which means we largely avoid the costs of renting a hall. And, as our programming was instantly distinctive, we quickly established a niche of our own in the DC cultural environment.
Two of our three forthcoming festivals build on another programming thread I’ve long pursued: sharing with audiences issues of interpretation — of a composer; of his music. Our “Stravinsky Project” in April 2011 — shared with the Strathmore Music Center, the National Gallery, and Georgetown University — challenges Stravinsky’s own strictures against interpretation. The central participant, the pianist Alexander Toradze, is the most subversive concert artist I know, an incendiary zealot for whom Stravinsky’s cool aesthetics of order and objectivity are meaningless.
The Ensemble’s “Interpreting Gershwin,” in collaboration with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at College Park, explores a range of interpretive options arising from Gershwin’s singularly eclectic genius. One of the participants, the pianist Genadi Zagor, is the wittiest, most elegant improviser I’ve ever encountered in the classical music world. He will not be the first pianist to improvise the solos in Rhapsody in Blue, but I doubt that those solos have ever been improvised by a virtuoso as spectacularly equipped as Genadi.
Our “Stravinsky Project” also includes the American premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces in its final version for pianola as performed by Rex Lawson, who claims to be one of only three fully trained present-day pianolists; using both hands and feet, he controls the dynamics, tempos, and pedalings of his thundering mechanical instrument. Peggy Parsons — our exemplary partner at the National Gallery film division — will strike a fresh print of Richard Leacock’s masterful cinema verite Stravinsky documentary, a film never before seen in DC. The same program features Tony Palmer’s award-winning Stravinsky film — with Tony Palmer at hand (from London) to comment. The Stravinsky festival concludes with Zagor improvising a Stravinsky medley — I cannot think of a more radical assault on Stravinsky’s insistence that there is only one correct way to play his music.
I came to the unclassifiable music of Lou Harrison thanks to the conductor Carl St. Clair, who spearheaded a 2006 Harrison festival with the Pacific Symphony (for which I serve as Artistic Advisor). Previously, I had not been prepared to concede the paramount importance and originality of a composer so likable. I agree with Mark Swed (in the Lost Angeles Times) that Harrison’s muscular, expansive Piano Concerto (premiered by Keith Jarrett) may be the most remarkable ever composed by an American. We’re doing it with Ben Pasternack, whose previous Ensemble assignments have included Copland’s Piano Fantasy and John Adams Phrygian Gates, both unforgettably delivered.
Our Harrison festival also includes a film component at the National Gallery — the world premiere of Eva Soltes’s intimate, exquisitely affectionate Harrison documentary, a movie years in the making. In addition to the Harrison Piano Concerto, we’ll bring to DC the serene Strict Songs for chorus and orchestra — Harrison’s homage to the West Coast as a refuge from Manhattan, serialism, and a nervous breakdown.
A more or less complete schedule of Post-Classical Ensemble’s 2010-2011 festivals follows. Tickets are on sale.
INTERPRETING GERSHWIN (at Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the University of Maryland at College Park)
Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010, 5:30 to 7 pm: TAKE-FIVE: “GERSHWIN AND IMPROVISATION”
With pianists Genadi Zagor and Vakhtang Kodanashvili, and Gershwin scholar Richard Crawford. Multiple versions of Gershwin songs and the Three Preludes, including improvisations and historic recordings.
Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010, 8 pm: “GERSHWIN AND JAZZ”
Gershwin songs with the University Jazz Ensemble.
Friday, Sept. 24, 2010, 3:30 pm – RICHARD CRAWFORD GERSHWIN LECTURE
Friday, Sept. 24, 2010 – “THE RUSSIAN GERSHWIN”
7 pm Pre-concert talk by Richard Crawford, including Soviet Gershwin recordings
8 pm: with pianists Genadi Zagor and Vakhtang Kodanashvili
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (original Paul Whiteman version, with the solos improvised) Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F
Gershwin: Cuban Overture
Saturday, Feb. 27, 2011, 2 pm, The National Gallery of Art: “Lou Harrison: A World of Music,” a documentary film by Eva Soltes (world premiere)
Friday, March 5, 2011, The Indonesian Consulate: Lou Harrison conference (in collaboration with George Washington University), including the Wesleyan University Gamelan, Harrison scholar Bill Alves, Eva Soltes
Saturday, March 6, 2011, Lisner Auditorium
Wesleyan University Javanese Gamelan (Sumarsam, director)
George Washington University Chorus
Benjamin Pasternack, piano
Javanese gamelan music
Harrison: gamelan composition TBA
Harrison: Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan, movement 2
Harrison: Strict Songs for chorus and orchestra
Harrison: Piano Concerto
1.At Georgetown University:
Stravinsky conference, McNeir Hall, Friday afternoon, April 8, 2011, 1 to 6 pm.
2.At Strathmore Concert Hall, Friday, April 8, 2011, 8 pm: “Stravinsky’s Russian Accent”
Alexander Toradze and members of the Toradze Piano Studio; Washington Bach Consort
Stravinsky: Symphonies for Wind Instruments
Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds
Russian wedding songs as source material for Les Noces
Stravinsky: Les Noces
3. Stravinsky Film Festival, The National Gallery, Saturday, April 9, 2011, 1 to 7 pm
Stravinsky: Tango (in live performance; Alexander Toradze, pianist)
“Once at a Border,” a Stravinsky biography by Tony Palmer
“A Stravinsky Portrait” by Richard Leacock (DC premiere)
Stravinsky/Balanchine: Agon (New York City Ballet)
With commentary on “interpreting Stravinsky” by Tony Palmer, Alexander Toradze, Robynn Stillwell; Joseph Horowitz, host
4. At Strathmore Mansion, Sunday April 10, 2011 : “Interpreting Stravinsky” Marathon
–12 to 3:45:
Part one: “The Stravinsky Odyssey,” an exhibition of photographs by Katya Chilingiri documenting Stravinsky’s odyssey from Russia to Switzerland to France to California, plus Chilingiri’s filmed interviews with his descendants in Europe and the US. Chilingiri will offer a guided tour, followed by discussion. (Box lunches will be provided.)
Part two: Rex Lawson performs the pianola version of Les Noces (American premiere). This was Stravinsky’s final version of Les Noces, incorporating all the instrumental and choral parts on a single keyboard (!).
Part three. “Interpreting Stravinsky” with pianists Alexander Toradze, George Vatchnadze, Genadi Zagor; Joseph Horowitz, host. Using archival recordings, film, and music in live performance, we explore Stravinsky’s “Russian” and “American” accents.
–4 to 6 pm: “Stravinsky and the Piano” at Strathmore Concert Hall
Pianists Alexander Toradze, George Vatchnadze, Genadi Zagor
Stravinsky: Scherzo from Sonata in F-sharp minor (Baltimore/DC premiere)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring) (two pianos)
Stravinsky: Tango
Stravinsky: Piano Sonata
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Solo Pianos
Stravinsky: Sonata for Two Pianos
A Stravinsky improvisation incorporating all the afternoon’s music

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