'The Firebird'
AUDIOFILE - Val A. Villanueva () - March 22, 2009 - 12:00am

Maybe it’s the child in me that got me hooked on fantasy ballet music. Never mind if I just have to imagine graceful ballerinas doing perfect arabesques and pirouettes inside my music room. Sometimes, with pleasing exaggeration, our imagination makes things seem even better than reality.

Russian Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971), whose compositional career was hailed for its stylistic diversity, is one musical genius who can trigger my visual senses into wild abandon. A quintessential cosmopolitan, he was among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the last century.

His has literally and figuratively left an indelible mark in music history: His works are either embedded in the grooves of an LP record or encoded as electronic impressions on CDs and other digital formats.

There are many versions of his 1910 ballet The Firebird, but what astonishes me most was the one interpreted by French conductor Pierre Boulez for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. I haven’t seen the ballet, but with the reproduction of its musical scoring on the LP I own, I have no doubt it would be majestic. The tonal timbre from the deepest low to the galactic high was all there for the sensual taking.

It’s been a ritual for me to research about a song or a composition before I listen to it. This helps me internalize and visualize the message an artist wants ordinary listeners like me to hear and feel. One thing I like about classical music is how composers are able to create music that revolves around a story with characters much like a writer of a literary opus or a blockbuster film does.

The Firebird tells of a fantasy world in which a young prince, Ivan, is seen roving in a charmed garden within the fiefdom of the immortal ogre Kastchei. Now, this evil ogre loves to imprison women and turn men to stone. Unaware of how treacherous his trek has become, Ivan sees a gorgeous magical Firebird and pilfers a feather from it. In the garden he meets 13 maidens and falls in love with one of them. When Kastchei’s magic forces the maidens to his castle, Ivan, out of his deep love for the maiden Tsarevna, finds the courage to rescue his beloved and the other maidens. He is imprisoned and about to be turned into cold stone. Summoning his strength, he waves the stolen glowing feather to call upon the Firebird who reveals to him the ogre’s secret: Kastchei’s soul is actually an egg kept secure inside a tightly guarded coffin. When the egg is shattered, the ogre’s life and his reign of terror would come to an end. With the help of the Firebird, Ivan breaks into the coffin and smashes the egg, obliterating the tyrant and liberating the kingdom from the evil spell.

The album The Firebird actually breaks with the dark, menacing chromatic music of King Kastchei. The gleaming effect of the glissando (an act of sliding a finger or thumb up or down a keyboard or harp strings from one note to another) harmonics in the strings section is played magnificently. With the lights dimmed and the blue back-lighting giving it a stage-like effect, my music room instantly becomes the fantasy garden where Ivan battles the evil ogre. As the Firebird descends from the sky, the tempo picks up segueing to Variations of the Firebird, a dazzling dance and orchestral masterwork. The maidens are greeted with a diatonic and somber music of Round Dance of the Golden Apples. A strong metrical pulse follows next giving the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei a demonic feel. The cut Berceuse which immediately comes after features the bassoon, very delicately complementing the strings and harp. A series of downhill chords give way to the Finale made ominous by the horn section. The orchestra finishes the oeuvre to a great climax, a mixed-meter dance wrapping up the suite.

If anyone ever wants an easy introduction to 20th century music, then The Firebird is a must-hear. It has authority, allure, splendor and, of course, a positive ending. It showcases Stravinsky’s use of the orchestral palette, astoundingly ingenious throughout and transparent at its best. Deliciously sensuous!

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For comments or questions, please e-mail me at audioglow@yahoo.com or at vphl@hotmail.com. You can also visit www.wiredstate.com or http://bikini-bottom.proboards80.com/index.cgi for quick answers to your audio concerns.

AS THE FIREBIRD COM FIREBIRD INFERNAL DANCE OF KING KASTCHEI IVAN KASTCHEI KING KASTCHEI MUSIC NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
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