Story posted April 19, 2007
Igor Stravinsky couldn't figure out what to call it. Finally, he settled on "Choreographed Scenes with Music and Voices."
Better known by its French name, "Les Noces," the work took him a decade to compose, went through five different versions, and ultimately required four grand pianos, a corps de ballet, full chorus, vocal soloists, and six percussionists on a single stage.
Bowdoin Chorus Director Anthony Antolini calls it "the first multimedia theater piece. Stravinsky was an incredible innovator. It's a brilliant work, but it's underperformed."
Not for long.
The Bowdoin Chorus will perform Stravinsky's "Les Noces" as part of the opening concerts of Bowdoin's new Studzinski Recital Hall, Kanbar Auditorium, May 4-6, 2007. Joining the chorus will be the Nevsky Vocal Ensemble from St. Petersburg, Russia, as soloists, and members of The Portland Ballet performing original choreography by Nell Green.
"We're doing a high wire act here," says Antolini, an expert on Russian choral work who has directed the Bowdoin Chorus since 1992. "This is the most ambitious musical adventure I have ever attempted with the Bowdoin Chorus. Yet, it seemed fitting to stage something so monumental for the opening of a gorgeous new recital hall."
A relentlessly percussive work, it seemed to embody a new aesthetic of modernity: a place where even the romance of marriage is stripped to its most abstract, ritualistic core. Critics at its 1923 Ballets Russes premiere in Paris called it "electrification applied to ballet."
Stravinsky's powerhouse ballet evokes a Russian village wedding fragmented by musical cubism. It was originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (sister of famed dancer Nijinsky) in a stark new style of modern, mechanistic movement.
In a collage of scenes evoking the rituals of marriage, groom, bride, parents, and guests alike give collective voice to the laments, anxieties, frivolities and hopes of marriage. Singing parts pass from soloist to chorus, man to woman, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, in counterpoint to the driving, machine-like rhythms of pianos and percussion instruments. The disorder of the wedding reception is presented as it might sound — melodies get introduced, then interrupted, by drunk guests.
Antolini likens it to a black-and-white art film: "Stravinsky was fascinated by the appearance of motion pictures," he says, "So he is trying to give you a movie of how peoples' feelings are at a wedding. The music is very mechanical, it doesn't speed up or slow down.
"Also it's not emotional. We don't get a romantic lift from it. What we get is a much deeper sense of feelings played out ... the transition of the bride and groom leaving their homes, the sadness as the parents say goodbye, the bride's anxiety at living with a new family."
Stravinsky draws lyrics and simple melodies from Russian folk songs, which he musically refracts with displaced rhythms and falsely accented lyrics. The effect is one of mounting tension.
"It was Stravinsky's trademark," notes Antolini. "All of his vocal works play with this mis-accenting of words. He refers to this as his 'rejoicing discovery,' because it's something he heard Russian folk singers doing. It creates excitement and makes the rhythm constantly interesting to dance to."
It makes for a highly challenging vocal score, and intense choral rehearsals. The student singers must learn their parts in Russian, with words whose accents often change, all the while singing independently of the accompanying instruments.
"Stravinsky was attempting to create something brand new with this work," notes Antolini. "This is the hardest piece our singers have ever sung. I'm working with the chorus at fever pitch."
Antolini is creating something brand new himself.
This performance of "Les Noces" marks the premiere of a new score that Antolini has spent years adapting. It will be published by E.C. Schirmer music publishers in 2008 (Antolini also is Russian music editor for ECS).
To begin, Antolini studied all five versions of "Les Noces" in Basel, Switzerland, where Stravinsky's manuscripts are archived. Versions had called for, variously, a harpsichord, player piano, and a cimbalom, the latter being a Hungarian version of the hammer dulcimer.
In his adaptation for a leaner, more modern orchestration, Antolini combined the four piano parts into two, and added two electric pianos to recreate some of the struck sounds Stravinsky had experimented with in earlier versions.
"In all the versions, he's playing with the difference between struck sound and blown sound," notes Antolini. "We'll experiment with the electric keyboards to see if we can emulate that. We'll pretend Stravinsky is sitting there and saying, 'I like that sound, not that one.' I'm not rewriting, not changing a note he wrote, just giving parts to instruments that weren't around when he was alive.
"If he were alive," he adds, " he would definitely experiment with these kinds of instruments."
Antolini's new production of "Les Noces" is garnering wide attention in classical circles. Two leading specialists on Stravinsky — Professor Margarita Mazo of Ohio State University, and Professor Stephen Walsh of the University of Cardiff, Wales — will attend the premiere performances and speak at a public forum on "Les Noces," which will be held at 2:30 p.m., Monday, May 7, 2007, in the Tillotson Room, Gibson Hall.
"I am amazed at how much attention this has attracted," says Antolini. "There is no question that this is the most challenging work I have ever attempted. But this is a brilliant work, it's seminal in terms of what Stravinsky went on to do. I'm thrilled to be able to bring this to life at Bowdoin."
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