Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka tells the story of the puppet Petrushka, who falls in love with the beautiful Ballerina puppet. She rejects him for the Moor puppet, and Petrushka, hurt, challenges him to a duel. The Moor kills Petrushka, whose ghost rises above the puppet theater, shaking his fist at the puppet master, then succumbs to death once more.
No fairytale ending here and some might say an unusual choice for outreach to young audiences with this year’s Texas Music Festival in Houston, but when festival officials suggested it, world-class conductor Mei-Ann Chen was all in.
“It still has the iconic Stravinsky, modern music feel, but I think it’s quite accessible because the music clearly represents different characters. It’s his take on The Nutcracker in some way; you hear individual characters and the music that portrays them,” says Chen who will conduct a week of rehearsals and performances at the festival, a four-week orchestral program for young classical musicians.
“Stravinsky said that Firebird was the last time he’d give a lollipop to the audience. Art is about stimulating people, and music is like life– not everything ends the way we think it should end,” says Chen, whose most recent appointment is Artistic Director and Conductor for the 2016 National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra.
Most Texas Music Festival participants are older undergraduates or graduate students who attend top-notch music programs and conservatories around the world. The program for each concert is chosen by General and Artistic Director Alan Austin, Music Director and Chief Conductor Franz Krager and each week’s respective conductor.
Another consideration: how to program a concert that would make sense for an outdoor, family-friendly performance at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands and another onstage in the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston.
In addition to Petrushka, the trio chose Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a lighthearted work that uses narration to explain and demonstrate the different sections of the orchestra that is still beloved by many die-hard classical music fans for its interesting use of theme and variations. The work is often programmed for children’s concerts, for obvious reasons. St. John Flynn of Houston Public Media will narrate.
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“Alan wanted me to pitch one more piece as a contrast to the Britten and the Stravinsky, which are more contemporary– Petrushka is the 1947 version, and the Britten was written during World War 2– so I pitched all of my favorites, including Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, because it’s a must-know for the students and a wonderful piece to contrast with the other two,” Chen says.
That choice stuck. The final piece on the program will be the third and fourth movements of Jean Françaix’s Clarinet Concerto, performed by Juan Esteban Martínez, one of the Texas Music Fesival orchestra fellows and a student at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Martínez won this year’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, a concerto competition within the festival.
“I love the program because it’s a three of my favorite pieces to conduct. It presents a wonderful training opportunity to master three different periods, styles and composers,” Chen says.
Performances are at 8 p.m. June 24 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins in The Woodlands, and 7:30 p.m. June 25 at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-3313, uh.edu/class/music/tmf/. Friday’s performance is free and open to everyone; Saturday’s performance is $15 to $25, and no one under age 5 will be allowed.