In the early 1900s, a relatively unknown Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballet Russes. Stravinsky wasn’t Diaghilev’s first choice — many others rejected his offer. The duo went on to create a tumultuous, fiery ballet titled “The Firebird,” which is carefully wrapped around Russian folklore.
Now a performance of the score of that ballet has come to downtown Portland. The Oregon Symphony has been performing “The Firebird” at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, with a final show on Monday night.
“The Firebird” follows the tale of Prince Ivan who spares the life of the Firebird. As thanks, the Firebird presents him with a magical feather. The feather summons the Firebird to help the prince defeat the evil sorcerer Koschei.
The successful ballet catapulted Stravinsky to fame and fortune while spotlighting Russian music in the classical world.
The concert hall isn’t the only place you can listen to “The Firebird.” The score has a strong presence in popular culture — it’s been used in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000,” during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and sampled by musicians such as Frank Zappa and Don Sebesky.
For those seeking a live audience experience in Portland this weekend, Deanna Tham will conduct all three of the symphony’s performances.
“I personally love the piece. … It’s very colorful. It has a very strong story element to it. It has a strong rhythm element to it that people can really grab onto and fall in love with Stravinsky’s music,” she says.
“It’s a classic Russian folktale, which some of us may or may not know, but we all will recognize the Firebird. We recognize that throughout all folklore as the Phoenix, the Firebird, the rebirth,” says Tham. “So you have this fiery color — he uses the woodwinds. Especially in contrast with the dark, magical forest of the evil Koschei. You have this intense contrast between dark and murky and magical and mystical, and then this fiery, bright light firebird.”
Tham also believes Stravinksy challenged the definition of traditional ballet performance, first with “The Firebird,” then “Petrushka” and later with “The Rite of Spring.”
“Rite of Spring,” which shocked the audience to such a degree when it debuted that people rioted in response to its performance, is Stravinsky’s most widely remembered composition today.
But the Oregon Symphony’s performances will give contemporary audiences an opportunity to see how he was laying the groundwork for that expectation-breaking work with “The Firebird,” which, like “Rite of Spring,” blends strange time signatures and technically demanding compositions.
Having conducted ballet before, Tham enjoys the intersection of both art forms — music and dance. She adds, “When you have these collaborations, where I think both art forms are equal to the fore, you advance both art forms on their own. … The collaboration should be there to advance the art and not hinder or pander to the existing limitations of them.”