Last night's performance of Igor Stravinsky's "Petrushka," a collaboration between the New York Philharmonic and Giants Are Small Productions, was 35 minutes of sheer joy and exuberance. I haven't been that entertained by the Philharmonic and its musicians in weeks (or at least since our previous concert at the beginning of June). The musicians were fully integrated into the ballet, wearing Russian hats and scarves, stomping their feet, drinking tea from a full Russian tea service, miming shots of vodka, dancing and changing seats during the scene changes. At several points the musicians stood up and moved around as they played the music of the Shrovetide Fair. Violist Rebecca Young showed some heretofore unheralded talents, juggling scarves and dancing in the middle of the stage. Maestro Alan Gilbert led the musicians from the podium, but he also played the role of the Magician, who brings to life the puppet characters of Petrushka, Columbine the ballerina, and The Moor. These characters appeared as puppets on screen and on stage, and as live-action characters played by opera singers Anthony Ross Costanzo and Eric Owens, with Sara Mearns as Columbine. In addition, the master puppeteers and scenic designers of Giants Are Small filled the stage with miniature Ferris wheels, snow sled runs, chuck-a-luck wheels, merry-go-rounds, and other rides found at fairs, all filmed and projected live on the screen overhead. I couldn't stop smiling the entire time. It was one of the most entertaining things I've ever seen at Avery Fisher Hall.
The first half of the program, Stravinsky's "The Fairy's Kiss," featured lovely music strongly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not music of that Russian master had he lived another 20 years, but Stravinsky's musical tribute to his forebear. The ballet that accompanied it did not follow the original story of the program, so it was more difficult to follow the action. But it looked lovely, and Giants Are Small provided more miniatures and camera work to add to the story's illustration. The two works had as a connection a brief post-intermission piano interlude by Louis Durey called "Neige" that showed Mearns' transformation from the ballerina of the first half into Columbine for "Petrushka." I'm not sure it was completely necessary, but the music was a refreshing palate cleanser leading into the magnificence that was "Petrushka."