It would have been easy to make an entire season out of the ideas the Boston Chamber Music Society compressed into one afternoon; as it is, the wealth of material had the audience buzzing during the two intermissions. Some found the multi-media presentation too much of a good thing. I found it exhilarating and challenging and wish more music organizations undertook this kind of 21st-century collaboration.
An Artistic Menagerie: Collaborations of Mind, Hands and Imagerie, Paris 1900–1926 (Satie, Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc, Stravinsky). Presented by the Boston Chamber Music Society and MIT Music and Theater Arts Faculty. At Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 22, 2011.
There’s a certain amount of nerdiness involved in asking an audience to show up at MIT at 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon and listen to nearly two hours of lectures and then to a full-length chamber music program. If you prefer your concerts traditional and simple, you would not have been happy at An Artistic Menagerie, a collaboration between the Boston Chamber Music Society(BCMS) and the MIT Music and Theater Arts Faculty. I, however, was glued to my seat for the duration. First there was a set of lecture-demonstrations about the early-twentieth-century artists, poets, and musicians in Paris. Then accomplished BCMS pianists Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson and baritone David Kravitz gave a great chamber music concert.
Marcus Thompson, violist, Artistic Director of the BCMS and Professor of Music at MIT, kicked off the jam-packed afternoon by noting just a few of the cultural themes at play in Paris before and after the First World War: interest in Wagner’s idea of a gesamkunstwerk that united many arts into one opus; a rebellion on the part of an entire generation of artists against traditional, lofty aesthetic ideals such as uplift; a desire to simplify texture and form; a fascination with African and Eastern cultures as well as the quotidien French; the cross-pollinating atmosphere of emigre Paris, where men like Pablo Picasso and Sergei Diaghilev could meet and work with local artists. There were a lot of names, dates, and ideas to process.
Museum of Fine Arts lecturer Ann Allen gave an absorbing, illustrated lecture about Picasso’s set and costume designs for the 1917 ballet of Parade (idea by Jean Cocteau; music by Erik Satie; performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; choreographed by Leonide Massine) and those that Fernand Leger had made for Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde (Ballets Suedois, story by Blaise Cendrars). Allen had so much of interest to say just about the set design by the two artists that one barely remembered that the centerpiece of the show had been dancers!
Jonathan McPhee, the articulate and extroverted conductor of the Boston Ballet and several other local groups, brought his dance and instrumental experience to the panel, discussing the collaborations from practical as well as artistic points of view. Lest we got too lost in the aesthetics, McPhee pointed out the Cocteau’s collaboration with Picasso and Stravinsky’s with Diaghilev were both shrewd career moves.
As for the performance . . . This unusual and interesting experiment juxtaposed piano reductions of ballet scores by Satie, Milhaud, and Stravinsky with art songs: Ravel’s setting of Jules Renard’s 1906 Histoires naturelles and Poulenc’s witty settings of Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire ou cortege d’Orfee of 1920. It made for a highly original program. The large stage of Kresge Hall, bare but for the sole piano, a screen, and some recording equipment, evoked a ballet studio. When the soloist stepped forward to sing, the setting retained a feeling of informality, reinforced by images by Toulouse Lautrec, Bonnard, and Dufy onscreen.
My companions found that the visuals distracted from the uniformly excellent performances by pianists Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson and baritone David Kravitz. Each are expressive, technically proficient performers whose collaboration added up to more than the sum of its parts. Their enjoyment of the program was palpable. The four-handed piano versions of the ballets were rigorous, lyrical, and compelling. The songs were exquisitely rendered.
It would have been easy to make an entire season out of the ideas the BCMS compressed into one afternoon; as it is, the wealth of material had the audience buzzing during the two intermissions. Some found the multi-media presentation too much of a good thing. I found it exhilarating and challenging and wish more music organizations undertook this kind of 21st-century collaboration.
Helen Epstein is the author of several books about performers and cultural life.