Over a two-week period in June, I was exposed to great art -- courtesy of the Greenwich Music Festival. With its subject as Igor Stravinsky, called the most famous composer of the 20th century, we were introduced, or perhaps reintroduced to the man and his spellbinding music.
In five different events, I found myself living at the highest level of art. Julliard lecturer/writer David Dubal set the stage at his talk at the Greenwich Arts Council to kick off the event. "Without the arts," he said, "you can't be fully human, to know who Beethoven is, to know who Stravinksy is."
Before Dubal's talk, we were shown a beautifully filmed movie, "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky," which began with the explosive musical magic of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" as first performed in Paris in 1913 that caused a riot with its stormy inventiveness.
The film portrays a love affair between the composer, who at 31 was married with four children, and the fashion designer Coco Chanel. The actor (Mads Mikkelsen) is a tall, handsome version of Stravinsky whom Dubal described as "very small in stature." "He was a body builder. He was very meticulous about his diet."
Indeed, the film shows Stravinsky doing push-ups and also shows his habitual way of working out his musical compositions on the piano.
Dubal debunked the importance of the Coco Chanel affair. "The affair with Coco was small potatoes," he said. "He had many more important love affairs." Stravinsky was described as having "magnetic electricity."
"He's one of the most creative minds that have ever been in music," Dubal said. "There is nothing that is not first class. He was a tremendous genius, a very great aesthetician."
"Everything about this man is organized," Dubal went on to say. And a telling scene in the film illustrates this, with Stravinsky methodically lining up every object on his working desk.
Growing up, Stravinsky did not receive affection from anyone with the exception of his nanny, said Dubal. "His (Russian) parents wanted him to play the piano, but he wanted to improvise." When he met the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, "He found his teacher," Dubal said.
Stravinksy's first composition for "The Firebird" ballet Dubal described as "Rimsky-Korsakov modernized." The day after Firebird was to be heard, Stravinsky was told, said Dubal, "You will be famous the next day."
His next ballet composition, "Petrushka," Dubal called a masterpiece. "He became a modernist with this composition. No one ever put such disparate keys together to make them work."
Dancing the role of Petrushka was Vasalav Nijinsky, who Dubal called "the most exciting person on stage in the world -- he had the most beautiful body."
"Rite of Spring" came next with all its fire power. Claude Debussy called it "extraordinarily wild," said Dubal. The music came from a vision Stravinsky had based on a 14th-century Russian pagan legend of a virgin giving her life for spring.
"If ever there was a visually oriented composer, it was Stravinsky," it has been written. In his own words, Stravinsky wrote, "The sight of gesture and movements of the body producing the music is fundamentally necessary if it is to be grasped in all its fullness."
Hungry to see Stravinsky's music "danced," I journeyed into New York to see "The Firebird" performed by the American Ballet Theater. I managed to sit close behind the conductor and was immediately struck by the muscle needed to direct Stravinsky's music, to keep the complex music moving forward as the extraordinary "Firebird" dancer leapt and "flew" in her fantastic, red-feathered costume.
The New York Times reviewer of the ballet, Alastair Macaulay, called the music "a masterpiece of narrative." "Moment by moment its suspenseful, evocative and poetic, each phrase conjures up picturesque marvels," he said.
Driving home in the car I played the "Firebird" music CD I had taken out of Greenwich Library and noted how wonderfully the car allows the listener to be immersed in the music -- uninterrupted -- to have it fill the senses.
Dubal had told us, "Music wants the mind to be tranquil. Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present." So often, he said, what is in our mind is chatter. Stravinsky loved what Johann Wolfang van Goethe said about music, "Architecture is petrified music," said Dubal, "Architecture is frozen music."
Following the Firebird performance I attended the next three events of the Greenwich Music Festival, "Stravinsky: Pairings;" "Stravinsky: Music for Dance;" and "The Soldier's Tale." Not being a chamber music fan, I can only say the first two programs featured top-flight singers and musicians performing beautifully both Stravinsky pieces and those of other composers influential to his work.
What bowled me over in the second program was 17-year old piano prodigy, Conrad Tao who, with lightning-speed proficiency played the technically challenging "Three Movements from Petrushka" -- a piece Stravinsky himself couldn't play.
What followed was a precedent-setting performance of the "The Soldier's Tale."
Meant to be read, played and danced, it is a moral tale of a poor returning soldier from the war who sells his soul in the form of a violin to the devil for a magical book that predicts the stock market. (A fitting tale for this town of hedgefunders?)
In one hour, a group of actors, dancers, musicians (the Deviant Septet) and a narrator took Stravinsky's creation to another dimension. Picture them all in black and white, moving across the stage with a narrator on one side and the red-eyed devil on the other. The soldier arrives but, Eureka! there are three of him, (an effect performed by three look-alike actors), one fitted behind the other, to act as parts of the soldier's soul falling away in his bargain with the devil. And then comes the soldier's bride -- in her ephemeral gown designed by famed costume designer Austin Scarlett. But, it turns out the bride is male! It is dancer Zack Winokur in drag.
And looking closely at the Septet, it appeared there were two females -- but they are all male here, with the help of costumery. But Oh! how the "bride" and groom danced to the rhythms of the tango, waltz and jazz, how effortlessly the male dancer lifted the male dancer.
This dark, androgynous production brought images to mind of Bertolt Brecht and Berlin in the 1930s. According to the program, the production was inspired by Shakespeare's play within his play, "Hamlet. " In this production, what came across is the striking originality, the elegant level of professionalism.
The fact that such excellence presented across the board in this festival was brought to us by the home- grown talent of Ted Huffman, artistic director, which made it that much more meaningful. There is no doubt Huffman and his creative team is destined for great things.
Anne W. Semmes is a staff reporter at the Greenwich Citizen.