This week at PIFA I’ve gone to some performances that I would never have thought of attending, and enjoyed them thoroughly.

The first was part of the PIFA Speakers Series, a discussion of puppets, which was partly meant to give context to Basil Twist’s Petrushka at the Annenberg Center. The panel included an academic (Eileen Blumenthal), a director (Robert Smythe), and a puppeteer. Martin Robinson, the puppeteer who has works on Sesame Street as well as was the original plant in “Little Shop of Horrors” shared a definition of a puppet: “An empty vessel that shares its soul with the audience and the performer.” The panelists then discussed the difference between “real” puppets like the original Yoda in Star Wars and the later CGI digital versions. They also showed a clip from Shostakovitch’s opera “The Nose” from the Metropolitan Opera. And they discussed the current production of “War Horse”, in which a horse is the main character, and is played by a puppet. They said the story could only have been told on stage if the horse was a puppet. According to the panel, incredibly artistry that went into creating the character, and now I’m interested to see the performance at Lincoln Center.

War Horse

Overall I found the talk fascinating and paid rapt attention throughout. It was accessible to all and gave a good idea of what greater ideas artists contemplate when creating their performances.

Later on I went the the Annenberg Center to see Basil Twist’s puppet version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The music was played in a beautiful and effecting two piano reduction by twins Julia and Irina Elkina. The puppetry was absolutely magical.

A video where Basil Twist describes the nature of puppets.

This version is Basil Twist‘s own take on the Ballet Russe “Petruskha“, and I thought it ingenious just in how he translated the different musical ideas into the characters and further into an entire story. Themes went from the absurd to representational, and Petruskha came across as the holy fool that we love to pity. We felt sorry from him when he was mistreated by the puppet-master and thrown into his room, the puppeteers evoking our response from a turn of his wire eyebrows.

Each puppet was controlled by three puppeteers who worked with amazing coordination and athleticism, which they revealed to us after the show. I would recommend this show to anyone, it was an unexpected delight!

Olga Kern

On Friday I also attended a piano recital given by Olga Kern in a very special setting – the conservatory at Longwood Gardens. I dragged my boyfriend along who wound up being happy he came. We arrived a bit late and were graciously ushered through the back entrance of the conservatory where all guests arrive for recitals, and as we made our way through the varied and beautiful, fragrant rooms, we heard piano music waft over the Orangerie. We joined the recital to hear the elegant and powerful musicianship of Olga Kern. She began the program with Clara Schumann, which I thought was good for female solidarity. Next was Schumann’s “Carnaval”, a masterwork and one which she played with flow, control, and a great variety of colors and volumes (“dynamic” sound as we call it in the pop music industry). I was most struck by how powerfully she could play paired with such strict delicacy.

A video of Olga Kern (with orchestra) performing part of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto

Olga also spoke to introduce her pieces. This was something I appreciated as did my boyfriend who has not seen so much classical music. She told the story of the music’s genesis, and also of her family’s ties with Rachmaninoff, who accompanied her great-grandmother, a mezzo soprano, in a concert of his songs. Her family still has the program from that concert.

At intermission we were invited out into the conservatory, where drinks were served. It was a privilege for me, who grew up visiting Longwood Gardens, to have a drink and speak to friends while overlooking the span of the painstakingly created conservatory. I had not finished my glass of wine before the second half of the concert began and was invited to bring it into the salon. There we were treated to Rachmaninoff (Piano Sonata 2) and Scriabin (more challenging for the player and the listener). The final piece, “Islamey” by Mily Balakirev, was more joyous that the previous works, and a fun and lively piece. It also seemed to give a sense of Kern’s spirit, and showed off her virtuosity in a great finish. Later she treated us to an encore that ended with both her arms splayed out to her sides. Nice choreography!

The East Conservatory of Longwood Gardens

To top it all off, Kern’s dresses had been custom made by Harry Robles, and they suited her beautifully, as did her artfully matched jewelry. It was an added treat to her masterful playing.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to see “A Lyrical Opera Made by Two” at the University of the Arts. The work is a love story based on memories and images of Gertrude Stein’s relationship with Alice B. Toklas, recalling the days of their flirtation, courtship and eventual liaison which was to last for some forty years. The text is by Stein herself and music by William Turner. Later I’ll head to see ?uestlove and Keren Ann at the Kimmel Center, followed by a DJ party at the Perelman Theatre. The assembled musicians seem to signal a rich and varied sound onstage, and I can’t wait to see what we’ll be treated to…

Keren Ann

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