Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ballets Russes Exhibit, National Gallery ~~ Getting to Know Stravinsky

After an eventful summer, I almost missed the news of this exhibit now at the National Gallery of Art in DC. I made it there yesterday and also reminded myself that the National Mall is one of my favorite places. The exhibit runs until October 6. (DVD's in the exhibit store include "The Red Shoes", which does have a link to the Ballets Russes.)

If you have not been into DC for a while or are going for the first time, and you plan to use the Metro system to get around, make a point of checking Metro's website at for any problems or delays. They're working on the tracks on the weekends. I had no problems with the Green Line this weekend.

It was a fine day on the National Mall, too. This view is through the Sculpture Garden fountains toward the west entrance of the National Gallery.


Igor Stravinsky was one of the important composer-collaborators for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. I still remember my own first encounter with his music and how I had to rediscover it. It's the 1971-72 school year at Homestead Air Force Base Elementary School in south Florida. I'm in the 6th Grade, and our teacher is Mr. Kruger (Krueger?). One day during that school year, Mr. Kruger made us take a break from regular lessons to watch a film strip. (Another way to date yourself: Mention watching "film strips" in school.) Without any explanation, he lets the show run itself, and I find myself absorbed by the exotic story from Russia about a fabulous creature called the Firebird and the prince who sought out Princess Unearthly Beauty and freed her and her companion princesses from the evil sorcerer, Kastchei. The story is told in the film strip with a series of painted depictions by an unknown artist aided by a narrator (or captions?). There was also Stravinsky's fantastic Firebird music, and I remember loving the Infernal Dance of Kastchei and his "ogres", though I can't recall if the composer was identified for us at the time.

Years pass. I'm becoming more familiar with classical music and taking a special interest in Russian composers. As I read about them and learn more about my favorites like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky comes to represent the forbidden, unlistenable avant garde for me. I'm going solely by descriptions of his music in texts and assume that I have not heard any of it before and I decide to avoid it.

Freshman year, fall of 1982, Duke University. One day in the dorm, I'm hanging out with friends in one of their rooms, and I spot an item in the friend's record collection: It's Bernstein's recording of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" with the dancer in the deer-skull costume on the cover of the vinyl LP album. I can't remember what exactly passed in conversation that led to us putting the record on and listening. Maybe I was expressing skepticism based on what I had read about the composer, and my friend wanted to prove something to me. We listened, and not only did I like it, but I recognized significant portions of it. It turned out -- as some might be guessing now -- that I had already heard chunks of this music in John Williams' score for "Star Wars", where he borrowed some of Stravinsky's ballet music for certain scenes. I had enjoyed the movie score enough to buy the soundtrack album back in high school, before I was to rediscover Stravinsky in college. Since then, I have been much more open-minded about approaching new composers' music and at least giving it a chance to see if it will, as they say, strike a chord with me.

Later, I learn that 1971 was the year of Stravinsky's death. I think back to that day in the 6th Grade, and I wonder if Mr. Kruger and his fellow teachers were observing the occasion by showing the film strip of "The Firebird".