Using a beloved Russian folk tale as his inspiration, Igor Stravinsky composed The Firebird in 1910. Although he would leave his homeland for good shortly after its premiere, thus avoiding the Soviet Revolution, two devastating world wars and the perils of Stalinism, Stravinsky remains the 20th century figure most identified with Russian classical music.
The Savannah Philharmonic’s Feb. 20 concert, in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, is an all–Russian program. Its centerpiece is The Firebird Suite, Stravinsky’s own distillation of his original 45–minute Firebird.
Conductor Peter Shannon wants the audience to know that Firebird is rich, dynamic and whimsical.
“This is not dark Russian political statements in music,” Shannon explains. “Stravinsky wrote with a completely different set of compositional tools than, say, Shostakovich, who lived at the same time, but under the repression of Stalinism. He was afraid of life every day composing.
“Shostakovich literally lived with a packed suitcase under his bed. Because in the 1930s there was this great purge of Stalin, where he got rid of all the people, basically, he didn’t like.”
Stravinsky was, by then, the toast of Paris, where The Firebird had premiered as a Ballets Russes commission.
“That first performance basically made him a rock star overnight,” Shannon says. “He wasn’t known at all in Paris, and then the next thing you know, everybody wanted to be with Stravinsky.”
He would go on to write numerous major works, including The Rite of Spring, but Firebird will always be the definitive Stravinsky work, for its dynamics, color and rhythmic innovation.
It tells the story of Prince Ivan’s travels through an enchanted forest, where he catches the magical firebird and releases it in exchange for the promise of a future favor.
In the gardens of the evil king Kashchei, Ivan encounters a princess, with whom he falls in love. Things turn ugly when Kashchei — wouldn’t you know it — has a problem with this.
There are arguments, and battles, and forest creatures under the king’s evil spell, and just when it seems as if all hope is lost for Ivan and his true love, the firebird intervenes.
“The firebird sends the kingdom into a dance where they basically dance themselves to death,” Shannon says. “And that’s reflected in this Infernal Dance, it’s called — and that thing just goes like the clappers of hell and doesn’t stop. It’s a fury getting faster and faster, and building in orchestral strength and dynamic, until the thing just absolutely runs itself over the cliff. It’s extremely dramatic to listen to.”
Because The Firebird was written for a ballet, Shannon adds, it’s extremely visual. “It’s almost a fait accompli that when you get to the orchestral music that images of the ballet come to mind. It’s impossible for this music not to evoke images,” he says.
“It’s full of just the most beautiful orchestral writing. It’s a piece I’ve chosen very specifically for our audience here. It shows off the orchestra at its very, very best. It’s very virtuostic, very difficult to play.
“And it’s fair to say that while it’s difficult, it’s a piece that the orchestral players really enjoy playing. It’s just one of those chocolate–box pieces.”
The concert, which will also feature music by the great 19th century Russian composers Glinka (Russian and Ludmilla Overture) and Borodin (Polovtsian Dances and In the Steppes of Central Asia), has one more international surprise.
For the first time since his arrival in Savannah three years ago, Shannon is preparing and rehearsing with an apprentice conductor.
He's George Jackson, a Londoner who's currently studying orchestral conducting in Vienna, Austria.
"We both share a little bit of history together, because 20 years ago I conducted the chapel choir at Trinity College in Dublin, and last year George was conducting that same choir," Shannon explains.
"A mutual friend of ours said to him ‘Look, if you're interested in a career in orchestral conducting, you need to talk to Peter Shannon.' And he did."
Jackson, who paid his own way to Savannah just to shadow, observe and collaborate with Shannon, was delighted when informed of the Savannah Philharmonic's program for the February concert.
Says Shannon: "He said ‘Oh my God, Firebird, this is fantastic. We're doing Firebird in class."
Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra
Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite"
Where: Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 222 E. Harris St.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20
Tickets: $35; VIP tickets $100
Phone: (912) 525-5050