Every musical medium calls at least one composer its “bread and butter”. For symphony orchestras, it’s Beethoven, for string quartets, it’s Haydn, for many opera companies, it’s Verdi and Puccini. We in the ballet world, and especially those of us who have been trained in the Balanchine tradition, are incredibly fortunate that our musical breads and butters are, in equal measure, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Igor Stravinsky (b. 1882, Russia, d. 1971, New York City) is an odd sort of bread and butter, if only because he composed some of the most forward-looking and rhythmically complex music in the orchestral repertoire. His prodigious output divides into three chronological periods: the Russian Period (The Firebird, Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring), the Neoclassical Period, and the Serial Period (Agon, Monumentum and Movements). Of these, the longest by far is his thirty- four-year neoclassical period, during which he composed all five works on this program.
Apollo (1928) was created early in Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase and was the first collaboration between the composer and then 24 year-old George Balanchine. There could hardly be a more classical subject than the birth and life of the Greek god of music and his relationships with the three muses. Apollo is scored for strings only, which gives it a Baroque character, reminiscent of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Matthew Neenan’s Deco is comprised of Stravinsky’s only Sonata for Piano (1924) and his Tango (1940). We are thrilled to present Neenan’s first choreographic encounter with Stravinsky. Matthew is a product of the Balanchine tradition, and so Stravinsky is his bread and butter, too. Jerome Robbins’ The Cage is set to Stravinsky’s Concerto en Ré. Like Apollo, it is scored for strings, but it is more angular and strange, emerging as it does from the other end of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. For this ballet, Robbins devised a decidedly un-classical narrative to match the wonderful weirdness of the score. Finally, and oddly enough, Stravinsky’s only violin concerto (scored for full orchestra) is also titled Concerto en Ré. Not being a string player, the composer was at first reluctant to take on this commission. But with encouragement from his friend Samuel Dushkin, for whom the piece was written, he forged ahead. True to form, Stravinsky’s self-confidence grew quickly. With characteristic fiendishness, he requires the soloist to initiate each of the concerto’s four, distinctive movements with a famously “impossible” chord (an eleventh on top of a ninth).
For us in the orchestra pit and for our fantastic soloists, Martha Koeneman (who has always told me that Stravinsky is her favorite composer) and Luigi Mazzocchi, the prospect of performing an all-Stravinsky program fills us with a healthy mixture of anxiety and excitement. This repertoire challenges us on every level. But because Stravinsky’s music is so completely engaging and thanks to his prolific partnership with Balanchine (who choreographed so much of our repertoire), we are pushed to our limits, but not beyond. We could not ask for more from our beloved bread and butter.
–Beatrice Jona Affron, The Louise and Alan Reed Music Director and Conductor