With its vast array of 145 events, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts has one admission requirement for nearly everyone on and off stage: faith that highly touted collaborations - many of which are unprecedented, some of which weren't likely to happen under any other circumstances - will live up to the festival's exterior glitz.
Even those intimately involved with some of these high-profile joint efforts of the festival, which begins Thursday night and runs through May 1, can't predict what will happen, if only because the individual pieces often will be assembled quickly before the first performance.
"With my schedule and their schedule . . . I have no idea what they've arrived at," admitted Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor Rossen Milanov, who is collaborating with the Pennsylvania Ballet on a staging of Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Thursday's opening-night event. "But I'm sure it'll be fine."
Optimism? The educated guess of a seasoned ballet conductor? Whatever the case, that unpredictability is the festival's primary departure from everyday cultural life in Philadelphia. With its theme of Paris 1910-20, PIFA has a certain amount of populist novelty - the 81-foot Eiffel Tower erected inside the Kimmel Center, the all-day fair April 30 on Broad Street between Chestnut and Lombard - that is likely to attract citywide attention. Most festivals of this size have a mandate to serve the larger community, and this one is no exception.
More significantly, the festival is a conscious coming together of Philadelphia arts institutions - the idea behind the 2009 $10 million grant from the late philanthropist Leonore Annenberg - that inevitably means artists may be leaving their comfort zones to find common ground, and in a way that seldom happens during their regular seasons.
For some, it's an opportunity to take chances without the usual responsibility to subscribers; others feel more like they're jumping off a cliff.
Barbara Silverstein, PIFA's artistic producer, is reassuring: "No matter how complicated the situation is, you have a goal. The curtain goes up and whatever stage you're in, you're ready to perform." And she knows, having lived with that kind of uncertainty as founder of the Pennsylvania Opera Theater, whose 18-year run ended in 1993.
Will reputedly conservative Philadelphia audiences be willing to watch? "Times have changed a lot. We have so much new work being done in the city," Silverstein says. "At the time that Opera Theater was flourishing, people were still nervous about new works and we took a few hits with ticket sales . . . but here, I don't know that we ever felt we've reached a boundary."
Though the Pennsylvania Ballet received $200,000 for its new Pulcinella, not everybody is awash in Annenberg money. Astral Artists was mightily encouraged to get $10,000 from PIFA for its multimedia Who Stole the Mona Lisa? - a musical program featuring a 17-minute animated film about the famous 1911 theft of the painting from the Louvre - even though it covered little more than the rent at the Perelman Theater for a single Saturday-morning performance. The rest - $30,000 - had to be raised by Astral.
But once the conversations started between Astral artistic director Julian Rodescu and freelance video artist Micah Chambers-Goldberg, the idea just had to happen.
"Adding another layer of connection to the period is an extended chase scene involving airplanes and zeppelins from the Paris Air Show of 1911," said Rodescu. "It's pure coincidence that the lobby of the Kimmel Center is now featuring those old planes and zeppelins" running on wires overhead.
The Paris 1910-20 theme turns out to have been surprisingly (maybe bewilderingly) open-ended: The concept began as a Stravinsky festival, since that composer so dominated the early 20th century and was a collaborator whose creative dynamism grew out of his ability to adapt to others without losing his identity. The fact that his Paris period was also populated by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and American émigrés ranging from Josephine Baker to Sidney Bechet, who changed the world in their own ways, meant that the concept was destined to expand.
"Often, I would go talk to people just to get their juices going and they would come back to me with a thought or a concept. And I'd say that sounds great. Or why not explore that some more? Or why not this element?" says Silverstein. "In some cases, I went back several times. It wasn't my role to impose my ideas on other people."
Ideas didn't always hatch easily. EgoPo Classic Theater was on the verge of giving up when artistic director Lane Savadove discovered Henri Barbusse's 1908 novel of existential voyeurism, Hell. Adapted for the stage, it will be presented April 27-May 15 at the German Society. The novel - notorious in its time everywhere but the United States - concerns a hotel dweller who watches a succession of lives and deaths in the room next door through a small hole in the wall above his bed.
In a nod to the already-scheduled show "Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle," now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Gershman Y and the Philadelphia Theatre Company turned their attention to his wife/muse in Bella: The Color of Love, a cabaret show by Theresa Tova based on the life of Bella Chagall.
Some of the more mainstream events, however, involved collaborations more complicated than anticipated. In PIFA's curtain-raiser Pulcinella at the Kimmel Center, the main challenge for Boston Ballet choreographer Jorma Elo isn't finding common ground between the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers and the Philadelphia Orchestra players. That's easy: Conductor Milanov was asked for his preferred Pulcinella tempos, and the dancers are taking it from there.
The venue, however, is not easy. Rather than staging the performance at the ballet's usual home, the Academy of Music, and cutting down the Philadelphia Orchestra to fit in the Academy's pit, the players will be in their usual place on the stage of the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall - in a week-long reconfiguration involving a forward extension to accommodate the dancers, plus space created along the sides.
Early on, Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser decided this Pulcinella wouldn't just be dancers flitting around in front of the orchestra. There will be a set, lights, and pre-shot video images of the dancers, showing close-ups, facial expressions, and emotions "while the dancers are physically present on the stage," he said.
The result is likely to be something never seen again after its Thursday-through-Sunday PIFA performances.
Center City Opera Theater is turning the Perelman Theater into a cabaret, replacing main-floor seats with tables for Rites, Rhythm . . . Riot!, its April 28-30 program with Orchestra 2001, which includes an original Paul Moravec/Terry Teachout opera, Danse Russe. But even for a company that regularly braves the rough-and-tumble Philly Fringe in all sorts of venues, that challenge pales next to staging Stravinsky's burlesque Renard with Taiwanese choreographer Kun-Yang Lin, for which a fundamental East-West aesthetic bridge must be crossed.
"If you hear a lot of Asian music, it has an internal rhythm. Here [in Renard], there's a very external structure," said Lin, founder of South Philly-based Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers. As a result, many of his spare moments have been spent re-listening to the Stravinsky score. "I have to be with the music so I can really find a relationship with it," he says.
And if he doesn't, well, French theater was often anything but tidy and linear a century ago - as illustrated by the surreal, protofeminist Guillaume Apollinaire theater piece The Mammaries of Tiresias, rethought by the Wilma Theater and BalletX (April 12-24), with original music and sets by Philadelphia artist Steven Dufala. In fact, the only piece likely to make typical sense is Stravinsky's morality parable The Soldier's Tale, as staged by master puppeteer Robert Smyth with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia next weekend at the Perelman.
The most far-afield event directly generated by PIFA is Hope: An Oratorio, by the young Maryland composer Jonathan Leshnoff, which will premiere April 24 at Verizon Hall. Though Leshnoff's concertos have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, among other ensembles, he has written this hour-long work, his first for voice, to reach out to a larger world, with texts in five languages and a huge range of ethnic and semiclassical styles, some of the work fashioned for the popular Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim. One precedent for such a work from an Orthodox Jewish composer is Leonard Bernstein's Mass.
Nonetheless, Leshnoff was taken aback when he walked into his first PIFA meeting, wearing his customary yarmulke, and was asked if he might write a piece for Easter Sunday based on the passion of Christ. He left his comfort zone at the door - but made a counterproposal for something broader, about the renewal of spring. He knows such a wide-reaching piece is viewed with skepticism in some quarters and notes that one British institution, which decided not to be a co-commissioner, dismissed it as "a dog's breakfast."
He counters, "The point is people working together to emerge out of despair . . .. I'm trying to reach out to every possible person and say, come and think."
So is there anything in the festival for those longing for certainty? Certainly - mostly in events scheduled to happen before the festival established its dates and then tweaked to take on a French coloration. Among them are concerts by such touring groups as the Orchestre National de France (April 15 at Verizon Hall) and the Ebene Quartet (Thursday, Perelman Theater), the latter being one of the more celebrated young groups in its medium.
Ebene violinist Gabriel Le Magadure didn't realize they were walking into a French-tinged festival until told by this reporter. Suddenly there is the pressure of being the bearer of French standards - a notion greeted with silence at the other end of the transatlantic phone line.
The quartet's new album is all jazz-slanted arrangements of mostly American movie music themes, titled Fiction. So while Philadelphia audiences will be hoping for the ultimate French connection, they're getting a group with a serious case of Ameri-envy. Could that ruin Ebene's ability to play the Debussy and Ravel pieces on its Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program?
"We were afraid of that," Le Magadure admitted. "But in fact, it was totally the opposite. Coming back to classical . . . we learned we can be more free about sound. We're happy to come back."
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