It all started with Stravinsky. The brilliant boundary pushing _migr_ composer was at the center of Paris' kinetic art world in the early part of the 20th century. It wasn't just Stravinsky's dynamic music that defined the era, however. Art, literature, music, and theater all came together in an explosion of culture that made Paris the place to be. The avant-garde Ballets Russes took Paris by storm with its provocative exoticism, cutting edge music, and boundary-breaking choreography, not to mention the unprecedented imagination of its set and costume designs. Its founder, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, brought together many brilliant artists to collaborate on new works that would change the face of culture forever. When the Kimmel Center sought a focus for a major new arts festival to debut in Philadelphia in spring 2011, the extraordinary outpouring of innovative, no-holds-barred creativity that found its natural home in Paris seemed a clear choice.
The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), which runs from April 7 to May 1, is not simply a tribute to all things French, however. Rather, it seeks to recapture the creative spirit that burst from Paris at the dawn of the last century and which lives in Philadelphia today. With contributions from over 140 local artists and arts organizations at the Kimmel Center and in venues throughout the Great Philadelphia region, PIFA is a snapshot of Philadelphia's rich arts scene today, as well as a window into where the city is headed in the future. "We wanted this Festival to grow out of the strong partnerships the Kimmel Center already has with its resident companies," says Edward Cambron, executive director of PIFA. "The Philadelphia Orchestra was one of the first organizations to embrace that idea." Naturally, every great idea needs the support of generous benefactors, and PIFA was initiated by a $10-million gift from the Annenberg Foundation. "Mrs. Annenberg was very proud of this city, and she devoted abundant energy and countless resources toward cultivating the arts in Philadelphia," Cambron says. "It is our hope that this Festival will pay tribute to her and her vision for the city."
Of course, The Philadelphia Orchestra is no stranger to the music of Stravinsky. One of the primary focuses of Charles Dutoit's tenure as chief conductor is a multiyear examination of works composed for the Ballets Russes. Dutoit and the Orchestra have already tackled Stravinsky's three magnificent early ballets, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and The Firebird. For PIFA the Orchestra will add three additional Stravinsky works to the project, the popular Pulcinella, based on music from 18th-century opera; Apollon musagte, which will spotlight the Fabulous Philadelphians' legendary string section; and the dramatic masterpiece on Greek themes, Oedipus Rex. In a third program, the Orchestra will also present works of Stravinsky's nearcontemporaries Berg and Mahler in conjunction with the Festival.
One of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts' guiding principles is to bring artists together for collaborations on new projects created especially for the Festival. One of the most notable among the over 30 new works commissioned is the first major joint venture between two of the city's artistic treasures (and Kimmel Center resident companies), The Philadelphia Orchestra and Pennsylvania Ballet. These two venerable institutions will kick off the Festival in a fully choreographed gala performance of Pulcinella in Verizon Hall, led by Orchestra Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov. "This is a unique opportunity to partner with one of our sister organizations in bringing something completely new, and created specifically for this Festival, to the Verizon Hall stage," Philadelphia Orchestra Vice President of Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman says. The performance will feature new choreography by renowned Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. Resident choreographer for Boston Ballet, Elo has also worked with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Finnish National Ballet, as well as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Chicago Symphony. "Jorma has a great understanding choreography. He uses a classical vocabulary but with a definite contemporary perspective," Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser says. In addition to being Pennsylvania Ballet's first major collaboration with The Philadelphia Orchestra, these performances also mark the first time the company has performed in Verizon Hall. Presenting ballet in a concert hall does provide its challenges, but Kaiser thinks the atmosphere will be electric. "This element of the unfamiliar, presenting dance alongside and around the Orchestra, makes this project really exciting," he says. "I know Jorma will embrace the opportunity to think in a different way and create something very unique to the Festival and this venue." Adding to the action on stage will be video projections created by Elo and visual artist Mikki Kunttu.
Although The Philadelphia Orchestra has often performed music from Pulcinella, the complete ballet music has not been performed in some 25 years. Composed between 1919 and 1920 for the Ballets Russes at the instigation of Diaghilev, Pulcinella finds Stravinsky reimagining music of an earlier period with unparalleled wit and invention. Based on music originally attributed to Pergolesi, the full ballet music has several significant additions to the Suite, including three singers who bring Pergolesi's classic melodies to life.
Although ballet music has featured prominently in the Orchestra's repertoire, collaborations with a full ballet troupe are a rarer occurrence. "This will be a different experience for the Orchestra, the dancers, and for our audience, but it offers some very exciting possibilities," says Rothman. "I think the result will be a more complete and fresh look at this popular work." Also on the program will be the First and Second Suites from Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, another work written for the Ballets Russes. The work also holds a unique place in the annals of the ensemble: The Orchestra first presented the complete ballet music in 1935 with Leopold Stokowski and the Ballets Russes at the Academy of Music in what must have been an extraordinary performance. The Three-Cornered Hat and Pulcinella are also linked by another legendary artist working in Paris in the early 20th century, Pablo Picasso, who was selected by Diaghilev to design the sets for each ballet.
After dipping into classicism with Pulcinella, by 1925 Stravinsky was ready to plunge into the distant past of Greek mythology with the opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex and the ballet Apollon musagte. The Orchestra has not presented these two masterworks since 1992, when Charles Dutoit, who leads them in these performances, conducted them. "This Festival was a great opportunity for Maestro Dutoit and the Orchestra to put these rarely-performed works out there," Rothman says. Although both works are drawn from Greek mythology and follow each other chronologically in Stravinsky's output, they have very different aesthetics. Apollon is scored for strings alone and at times recalls Rococo elegance, while Oedipus Rex is distilled music drama and features a narrator, several vocal soloists, and a male chorus, in addition to full orchestra. Responding to the Classical Latin of the text (originally crafted by Jean Cocteau, another legendary Ballets Russes contributor), Stravinsky created a new sound world for the work, marrying starkness and voluptuousness in his own inimitable way. The music draws inspiration from composers of all eras, including, most surprisingly, Giuseppe Verdi, whose music Stravinsky greatly admired. "These works are varied in scope and subject matter but are both equally compelling. These performances will give us a chance to show the Orchestra in different formats and configurations," Rothman says.
Branching out from Stravinsky, the Orchestra, guest conductor David Zinman, and soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge will perform Berg's Suite from Lulu and Mahler's Symphony No. 4. "This music gives a great picture of the musical culture just before and just after Stravinsky burst onto the scene," Rothman says. "It will be informative to show what two brilliant composers working outside of France were writing around this time."
Philadelphia Orchestra, the other Resident Companies, and guest artists, the Kimmel Center will undertake a profound transformation of its lobby into a French inspired public square, complete with a 90-foot-tall fanciful rendering of the Eiffel Tower filled to the brim with thousands of light bulbs, a French bistro, and circus arts performances. "The Kimmel Center lobby will come to life in a whole new way_ã”full of delights for the eye, the ear, and the tastebuds," says Cambron. "People will be swept away by this unique experience from the moment they set foot inside the building." The Philadelphia Orchestra's performances at PIFA will not only give life to new collaborations but also serve to reinforce civic pride in presenting a major arts festival in Philadelphia. "This city has invested so much into building its cultural scene," says Cambron. "It's now time to show the world what we're about."