Piano music danced with art June 16 at the National Gallery for its glorious exhibit, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music”.
“I love that title,” pianist and music scholar Michael Arnowitt told the audience before his masterful, unique concert — one of many programs related to the spectacular Ballets Russes exhibit.
Arnowitt’s recital offered music by Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie, composers Diaghilev commissioned for some of the renowned company’s most innovative and controversial ballets.
“Astound me!” was Diaghilev’s constant demand. Audiences were almost always astounded.
Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps), choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, sparked a riot at its Paris premiere in 1913.
One critic called the jolting, pounding, frenzied score music and choreography “Le Massacre du Printemps“.
But a century later, the June 16 audience adored “The Adoration of the Earth”, the Rite’s first half, which Arnowitt transcribed for piano solo.
“Pulling it off solo was an impressive tour de force … technically brilliant and musically convincing,” the “Washington Post” said in its review.
Stravinsky’s relentless repetitions of a chord originated the “tone-cluster technique” used by later composers. With themes of brutal violence and primitivism, the music and ballet that shocked in 1913 — like numerous Ballets Russes creations — are now classics of modernism.
Arnowitt entitled his concert “1913”, when “astoundingly creative and imaginative music was in the air.” That year was “an amazing time between the old and new…all the arts were so vibrant and so dramatic.”
He chose 1913 works by Debussy and Satie — not their compositions for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes from other years.
Debussy’s 1912 “The Afternoon of a Faun” (L’Après-Midi d’un Faune), Nijinsky’s first choreographic effort, provoked the company’s first of many scandals.
In 1913, Debussy composed “Games” (Jeux) for Diaghilev.
But Arnowitt chose a far more mesmerizing 1913 Debussy work — Préludes, Book 2 selections including the fitting “Fairies are Exquisite Dancers”.
Erik Satie foreshadowed surrealism when he composed “Parade” as a sort of ragtime interspersed with foghorn blasts, typewriter clacking, bottles clinking, and other everyday sounds in 1917.
For “Parade”, Diaghilev also commissioned Pablo Picasso to design costumes and sets — the artist’s first work for the stage. And its libretto was written by Jean Cocteau, one of the greatest 20th century playwrights.
Satie, though no Cocteau, wrote satirical, even comical verse as well as music for “Dessicated Embryos”, short piano pieces in 1913. “Gastropod with Protruding Eyes”, “Crustacean”, and “Sea Cucumber” were narrated by pianist-composer Jeffrey Chappell.
Here’s a bit of one dried up embryo:
“Illiterates call it sea cucumber … like a cat, a sea animal purrs. What’s worse, it emits…gunk,” Chappell narrated. “It’s like a nightingale with a toothache.”
Sounding less like a nightingale with or without a tooth or an ache, and more like warplane engines, was Leo Ornstein’s “Suicide in an Airplane” (1918-1918), veering from the 1913 focus.
(One work performed by the Ballets Russes in 1913, but not selected by the Vermont-based pianist (or the exhibit) is “Khovanshchina”. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel to make an arrangement of the opera begun by Modest Mussorgsky and completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.)
Charles Ives’ “The Alcotts” (1911-1915), and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sonata no. 2 in B-flat Minor (1913) completed the program.
Arnowitt chose some “backward-looking music that hearkened back to the Romantic Era, and some forward-looking adventurous music of 1913 that resounds all the way up to today.”
The classical and jazz pianist’s concert epitomized the title of an award-winning documentary about him, “Beyond Eighty-Eight Keys”.
The event was in the National Gallery’s West Garden Court, where music dances with art and with eternal springtime. The greenery of plants, and trees that reach to the high arched glass ceiling, is punctuated by white lilies and lavender hydrangeas.
As Satie wrote in the narration of “Dessicated Embryos”, “It’s good to be alive.”
For more info: Pianist Michael Arnowitt, www.MAPiano.com. “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music”. Free exhibit through Sept. 2, the only U.S. venue. Related programs. Other concerts. National Gallery of Art, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, Washington, D.C.