Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn't hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art's huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin's Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky's for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony! Vasily Petrenko's recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole "conducting animal" to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable. The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are "double-jointed." But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some...this is a man who'd have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
Old shoes re-souled. There's a silent background to The Cherry Orchard for anyone born during the Cold War. The theme of social change, ambiguously written by Chekhov, took on a ferocious literalness after 1917. The niceties of the play are overshadowed by our knowledge of show trials, pogroms, and Soviet monsters to come. With all of that gone up in smoke, we find ourselves starting over. Now the opposite dilemma has appeared: what to do with a Russia sliding into irrelevancy? Putin is barely a mini-me compared to Stalin. The whole society, soaked in vodka and oil revenues, has been drained of significance: terror, class war, an ancien regime, elegiac memories, idealism, and even apparatchiks — all those soulful overtones gone flat-line.
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller's commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? - May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I've settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.