Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed


Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

Seen through the lens of early and later Stravinsky — think Symphony of Psalms (1930), and posteriorly, The Rake’s Progress (1950) — this Stravinsky work of 1933-34 is an overly inflated text (written by French author/poet Andre Gide, who would later win a Nobel prize in literature) in search of musical coherence. There’s more instrumental punctuation than textual sense. In fact, the melodramatic backstory of the first amicable and later bitter collaboration between Gide and Stravinsky speaks to this point.

For Stravinsky, musical rhythm was always king. Gide was so irritated by Stravinsky’s cavalier treatment of his poetic textual meter and rhyme that the poet left town prior to the premiere. Gide felt that Stravinsky seemed more interested in the sounds of the syllables than the meaning of the words.

And Gide had a point: Stravinsky, as in others of his choral works, affords barely a modicum of respect to the text, in terms of word accent and phrasing.

With musical lines reading like EKG strips and diverse musical ideas that often collide, it is one of the composer’s least performed staged works. Stravinsky floats many ideas, many of them wonderful, but they cannot stay aloft on their own. It’s not that the music is uninteresting, but there’s no glue without the added attractions mentioned above.

An unavoidable aspect of this performance was the sightline problem in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which lacks an orchestra pit and consequently placed the musicians between the theatrical action and some viewers’ eyes. Seeing all the puppets, not to mention the singers and even occasionally the human Persephone herself, was a challenge, even from – especially from – orchestra level seats.

This was a brave endeavor; all three SoundSights performances were brave. Perhaps for this work the orchestra could have courageously compromised their own dominance on the stage, elevating or otherwise bringing to the foreground the dramatic and visual arts, the actors, puppets and dancer. A crowded stage was unavoidable, but when the object is an opera, a ballet, or a self-proclaimed melodrama, then perhaps that should be what gets the spotlight.

The Oregon Symphony was precisely and dramatically conducted by Mr. Kalmar. The choirs were impeccable in their telling delivery, with outstanding French pronunciation, and the efforts of Mr. Curry and Mss. Cheviller and Marra were the sine qua non of the storytelling affair. Tenor Paul Grove was perfectly cast as the stalwart Eumolpus. He at times manufactured lyric vocal lines where there were none.

The opening work, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 (in C minor), the “Little Russian,” was a delight. Based primarily on three folk songs from Ukraine, it’s short, punchy, jaunty. The orchestra soared, and shaped the phrases with delicacy and imagination.

The opening chord of the first movement, and the exquisitely rendered melody played first in the solo French horn then shared with solo bassoon seem to herald the serious, emotional Tchaikovsky of the later symphonies. But we are fooled and delighted when Tchaikovsky shows himself willing to be playful, sometimes with jazzy syncopations, but in full command of his orchestrations and thematic developments. In the first movement, the 32nd note passages being tossed about over the theme struggled only briefly to find their groove.

In the brilliant final movement, drama is built through peaks and valleys, driving forward, then pulling back and finally concluding after one of the best codas of all time. Tchaikovsky leaves us as exhausted as the Ukrainian Gopak (or Cossack) dancers one could visualize in the frenetic flurry of the final movement.

A final observation. The pause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky drew applause from the audience. I put aside my momentary puritanical reaction, however, by imagining the audience which may have come to see the sights and sounds of the second half of the program, Persephone. Perhaps they were attending their first orchestral concert. Perhaps they had never heard a symphony and were so excited they could not restrain their delight. Perhaps their charming naivete was a confirmation of how proud the Oregon Symphony should be of their efforts to enliven and educate amidst a swirl of color, movement, and drama with positive implications for the next several years.

Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

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One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    A fine summary of the Persephone performance. The performers were excellent and the stage production was WOW! The latter almost but not quite carried the day all by itself, in spite of what must be one of the dullest works by Stravinsky, a composer who is rarely dull, and just as you say, the lack of orchestral pit which took just a smidgen of the visual impact away, even from the mezzanine.

    Isn’t it time we left behind the antiquated custom of enforced silence between movements? I agree that’s far preferable to polite applause in every pause. But unless specifically requested otherwise, a big finish calls for at least a brief burst of applause, by veterans as well as newbies, and performers should give at least a brief and courteous acknowledgement.

    Of course there are exceptions, and Tchaikovsky himself provides one, the uber-brilliant ending of the March in his 6th symphony. I wonder how it went down in Piotr’s day.

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