Monday, May 9, 2011

The Firebird (Stravinsky)

My first introduction to Stravinsky's Firebird was through Fantasia 2000.  Quite literally, a firebird came out of a volcano in a thunder of brass and percussion and chased down the Spring nymph to her doom.  Fortunately, a single tear revived her from the ashes of the burned forest--the result of the firebird's brief reign of terror--and, helped by her friend the stag, triumphs over the ruined waste with seed and rain.  Instantly, as the music crescendos in triumph, great trees spring up out of the ground, rising to the heights of ancient trees in mere breaths.  The waste fades to memory as the story of renewal is told once more.

Well, that's the way Disney's artists saw it.  And good for them!  The music they selected is just a brief excerpt from the whole piece, so I was in for an experience listing to it again tonight.

Netflix was having an internal error, so I switched my Roku box to the Classical TV channel.  The first item on the list was Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philhamonic in Vienna in 2000.  Three pieces were on the program:  Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), an unwatchable modern viola concerto, and Stravinsky's Firebird.  I have a hard time watching Gergiev conduct, because he has a tendency to shake his right hand about as if he has palsy.  (He doesn't, as I was able to observe as he conducted the later pieces in the program.)

The great complexity of the viola concerto and of the Firebird demanded someone who could feel the music as much as memorize it.  Gergiev excelled at this, especially during the Firebird, which is incredibly dynamic and expressive.  By the time the orchestra plays at the concert, the conductor is generally reminding players where to come in.  The task of shaping how they will play is (mostly) complete.  It takes a lot of work, most of which concertgoers never see.  I had the privilege of working with my college orchestra as an assistant for five years, under two directors.  I learned more about composition and performance from those rehearsals than I ever did from listening to albums.

Some orchestras allow you to attend rehearsals.  You may not get to hear the music non-stop, but you get the experience of learning how it is all put together.  I strongly encourage experiencing music up close and personal.  If you're not playing it, go wahow it is played.

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