Category Archives: Architecture, Various

Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

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This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

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That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the az.lib.ru site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili workspace, Hanover, NH

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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili (born 1941) has gotten around throughout his career. One of the great Georgian theater designers of his generation, he has worked extensively in Russia and the United States (including the Metropolitan Opera in New York), leaving quite a mark in both of those countries. I won’t be able to recall exactly the first time I encountered his work, although it was probably when I saw all the shows of the stunning Moscow tour of the Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia, in Moscow in 1994. Those sets to soaring, eye-opening and heart-rending productions by Robert Sturua (Meskhishvili did not design them all) were fabulously eclectic, suggestive and beautiful. The use of large expanses of open space, coupled with well-considered props, seemed to be the epitome of theatrical to me. Here’s what I wrote about Sturua’s rendition of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in an article about that tour for the journal Slavic and East European Performances ( later reprinted in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996):
The set by Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili implied a forlorn outpost. Battered fortress walls lined the walls of the large, empty stage, the center of which often revolved, delivering or carrying away actors in statue-like poses. A few artist’s implements stood bunched at forestage right (the Storyteller’s “studio”), a messenger occasionally appeared atop a kind of Trojan horse, and spare props such as a bed, a wash tub or a scaffold (in Act III) were brought in from time to time. But the stage was primarily an open platter that served up the actors and the action.”
(A little more research indicates that I actually probably first encountered his work in 1992 or 1993 – this would have been Temur Chkheidze’s production of Schiller’s Love and Intrigue for the Bolshoi Drama Theater of St. Petersburg – although I apparently did not write about it, so I can’t offer up a fresh impression here.)
Later I saw numerous sets that Meskhishvili created for Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre and Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, and numerous more that he created for Sturua’s many productions in Moscow at the Et Cetera Theater. You can see a bit of one of those shows, The Tempest, on YouTube. It’s well worth it. Meskhishvili has worked in London, Dusseldorf, Helsinki, Paris, Bordeaux, Venice, Munich and Bologna in Europe. He also created sets and costumes for productions in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, and he was a founding member of the highly-regarded Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C.
What I did not know when my wife Oksana and I arrived for a three-week residency with the New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth College last August, was that Alexi-Meskhishvili had taught design in the theater department at Dartmouth for 20 years. In fact, he apparently had just cleaned out his office and headed back to Tbilisi shortly before we arrived in August 2015. He joined the faculty as a visiting professor in 1996. So, not only did I find myself routinely walking the same halls that he had walked for so long, I also heard his former students referring to him with love and affection as Gogi, the Georgian diminutive for Georgy. It all struck me as slightly bizarre and quite fascinating.

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Alexi-Meskhishvili – for at least part of his tenure at Dartmouth – occupied office 117 in the Hopkins Center, certain aspects of which you can see in these photos. The first two shots in the block immediately above show the design workshop that is located on the ground floor of the Hopkins Center. The three photos below show some of the Dartmouth students’ design work that would have been done under Alexi-Meskhishvili’s tutelage. The display cabinet is located in the Hopkins Center basement, adjacent to the entrance to the Bentley Theater space (directly under the Moore Theatre space) where most student productions are performed. I hazard to say that most of the design models show the Meskhishvili influence. Compare, for instance, the last photo below with the set you see in the video of The Tempest above. I definitely see a connection. These designs are not the typical sit-comish kitchen or living room scenes that American theater throws at us so often.
Alexi-Meskhishvili returned to Tbilisi in the late summer of 2015 in order to devote his time more heavily to the Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili Modern Theater Art School at the Rustaveli Theatre (the school officially opened in 2014). According to an announcement on the website of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, the school is free of charge to the students (hear that, United States?). I wrote to my friend Maya Mamaladze, a Moscow-educated Georgian theater scholar and critic, and asked if she could share any details about the school. She replied that she attended a student exhibit in the foyer of the Rustaveli Theater in October 2015: “Very good works, models and installations,” she wrote.
Alexi-Meskhishvili’s own work has pulled down a bundle of awards, if you’re into things like that. The one I find of particular interest – not because of the award itself, but because of the project – is the Felix award for best design at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989. This was for his work on Ashik-Kerib, the great Sergei Parajanov’s last finished film.
Pamela Howard, in her book What is Scenography? asked a large number of designers from around the world to answer the question posed by her book title. I can’t say that most of the respondents shined in their answers. Alexi-Meskhishvili, however, gave a good one: “Scenography – playing the game by my own rules in the magic box of stage.”

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Ballets Russes at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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The critics ate the Ballets Russes alive when they opened for a short, “low-priced,” season in London at the Lyceum Theatre on 21 Wellington St. at the end of 1926. All kinds of stuff about them going pop (in the local lingua of the time, of course). They’d lost their moxie. They were pandering to the public. That kind of stuff. Oh, really? I’ll bet you’d have a hell of a time finding a critic who didn’t fawn on The Lion King, which opened at this same venue in 1999 and is still running today! So much for critics, so much for standards, so much for taste! In fact, when you walk around London’s West End, as I did a few months ago, and you see all those cotton candy musicals gumming up the city’s stages, you wonder how London’s reputation as a great theater center has survived. But that’s just an aside. I’m here to think about the Ballets Russes today.
The show that really caught in the London critics’ collective craw in 1926 was The Triumph of Neptune. It premiered Dec. 3, 1926, and was composed by Lord Berners, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first work that Diaghilev ever commissioned from a British composer. It was considered populist and folkloric and decidedly beneath the great Ballets Russes. Here is what the critic for The Nation wrote:
The excited giggles that greeted some of the more bizarre elements of the newer ballets betrayed a large sprinkling of a less highbrow audience. The season which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1926 brought out an even motlier public, an enormous army of admirers, who make up an audience as unintelligent as any other, and apparently quite incapable of discriminating between one ballet and another.”
Oh, yes, where have I seen this before? If only the stupid public and the talentless artists would listen to us, the genius critics! But I keep digressing today…
Still, the razzes were not unanimous. In a friendly contemporary essay about the ballet, one scholar dug up something resembling a positive response and put it into context:
In fact Diaghilev was as attuned to trends as ever,” writes Anne Witchard in “Bedraggled Ballerinas on a Bus Back to Bow: The ‘Fairy Business’.” “It was a craze for mid-century Victoriana among London’s so-called Bright Young Things that persuaded him to commission the eccentric peer and composer Lord Berners and his friend Sacheverell Sitwell to create the ballet score and libretto. The Triumph of Neptune was a combination of surreal pastiche, camp sentiment, and fierce nostalgia, and it prompted the normally anti-Diaghilev Daily Express critic, Hannen Swaffer, to state: ‘We saw at the Lyceum last night the beginnings of a British ballet.’ This was not quite what Haskell had meant. Where Haskell was referring to the artistic credibility of English ballet dancing as a nascent phenomenon thanks to Russian intervention, what Swaffer saw in The Triumph of Neptune was the rediscovery of an already credible native tradition. The flamboyant dandy-aesthetes of the 1920s embraced a ‘High-coloured Victorian England’ as wholeheartedly as pre-war Bloomsbury had rejected it, and Diaghilev’s company offered ways of making aesthetic connections to that tradition.”

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The Triumph of Neptune was joined in rep by, among other titles, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. This latter work premiered in Monte Carlo a few months before London, and received a bit of a scandalous reception in Paris after Monte Carlo, but before London. The Parisians, apparently always quick to complain (or quick to give Diaghilev the publicity he craved) were unhappy that the pair of lovers in this version are swept away to safety on a new-fangled airplane rather than can kill themselves in the finale. Here, in a review of a CD containing both The Triumph of Neptune and Romeo and Juliet, is a description of the ballet as it unfolded on stage:
This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance.  The first tableaux is ‘In a ballet classroom,’ in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance.  The second tableaux is ‘At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet‘ in which the first meeting of the two lovers  is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain call—they have eloped by aeroplane.”
Romeo was danced by Serge Lifar (Serhiy Lyfar in transliteration from his native Ukrainian); Juliet by Alice (Alisa) Nikitina. You can see them in a photo on Pinterest.
A third ballet that played with the other two was a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Alexander Golovin’s sets and Leon (Lev) Bakst’s costumes to the famous 1910 production had been damaged beyond repair, Diaghilev had Natalya Goncharova create a new environment for the piece. (You can see a nice shot of her backdrop here.) According to The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, The Firebird opened Nov. 22, 1926, and played 10 times through Dec. 11. It used the original Michel Fokine (Mikhail Fokin) choreography, and starred Serge Lifar  as Ivan Tsarevich and Lydia Lopokova (Lidia Lopukhova) as the Firebird. Chatty birds even today tell us that Lopokova did not like working with Lifar, but she put on a game face and did it anyway.
There were apparently several other works that joined these main pieces during the London “low-priced” season. The fine AusStage website informs us that on Thursday, Nov. 25, the following combination of ballets and symphonic pieces opened: The Three-Cornered HatThe Firebird,  L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, and Prince Igor, plus the interludes of Largo by Gemignani (first performance in England), Jeux en Plein Air by Tailleferre (first performance in England) and Scherzo by Borodin.
Look at all that cheap, populist stuff! Right here at the Lyceum, November and December 1926.

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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Tolstoy at the Athenaeum Club, London

Click on photos to enlarge.

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In her book Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett writes, “There is sadly very little documentation about Tolstoy’s only visit to England, but we do know that the well-connected lawyer and journalist Henry Reeve sponsored his honorary membership of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall from 5 March to 6 April 1861.”
This dearth of information about Tolstoy in London, and at the Atheneum in specific, is repeated all over the place. I chose to quote Bartlett’s phrase because it appears to have more information than any other, adding the name of the person who helped Tolstoy join the club, and adding the dates of his membership. These bare shards of tidbits came as a result of Bartlett’s own research at the Club, as her footnote on pg. 466 indicates – the source was Jennie de Protani, the club’s archivist.
Well, here it is, the Athenaeum Club located at the intersection of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall (official address appears to be 107 Pall Mall, but I didn’t see that anywhere). It’s a beautiful place that fairly sparkles in the sunlight, and – thanks to the bronze statue of Athena – in the shade as well. Here is how the official website of the club describes itself, in part:
The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
“Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.”
The frieze surrounding the top of the building is a copy of a marble frieze salvaged (or is that “plundered”?) from the Parthenon in Athens at the time that the club was being built around 1824, four years before Tolstoy was born.

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As I wrote in a previous post about Tolstoy in London (his visit to the Octagon School), he had primarily come to Europe to study school systems. In 1859 (still four years before he would begin writing War and Peace) he had opened his own first schools in Russia. On Sept. 20, 1860 his oldest brother Nikolai died at the age of 37, distressing Leo deeply. It is said he went into a period of depression following that, and one can’t help but assume that the trip abroad was also expected to help bring him out of that.
In fact, the Spring 1861 trip to London finds Tolstoy at a crossroads. Having just lost his brother, he also now nears his marriage to Sofya Behrs in September 1862. He will begin writing War and Peace in 1863 (finishing it in 1869). For a bit of perspective, his first literary publication (the novella Childhood) had taken place in 1852. Furthermore, just as Tolstoy was arriving in London, on March 3, 1861, Russian Emperor Alexander II officially abolished serfdom, an event that was extremely important to Tolstoy. In other words, he was, at the time of this trip, a fledgling, though published, writer, who had just experienced a traumatic loss and was on the verge of great and momentous changes in his personal life, his public life and in his career as a writer. He, of course, would not have been known at all in London at this time. Or, if he was, it could only have been by a handful of people who either might have crossed his path personally, or who would have been impressed by his wealth and aristocratic position. Apparently Londoners have a long tradition of bending the knee before wealthy and powerful Russians coming to town…

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Nijinsky opens ‘Rite of Spring’ at Drury Lane, London

DSCN7240 DSCN7248Isn’t it the way? What the French called scandalous barely caused the Brits to wiggle and waggle their stiff upper lips. We are talking about Vaclav Nijinsky’s famous, legendary, incendiary, monumental ballet choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary and seminal 20th-century music – The Rite of Spring. Everybody and their uncle knows of the “riot” that occurred opening night in Paris on May 29, 1913. Whether or not there really was a riot is a different story, and it has been told many a time from many an angle.
Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared,” the BBC reports. ‘They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,’ she said in an interview recorded in 1965.”
Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, which put on the performance, is said to have been hankering for a scandal. What impresario isn’t? The BBC again: “‘He knew there was going to be trouble,’ said Lydia Sokolova, and there are some signs that he was hoping for a scandal. Announcing the Rite of Spring in the Parisian press, Diaghilev had suggested it would cause ‘impassioned debate.’ In so doing, Esteban Buch suggests, he was setting the scene ‘for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.’ He certainly got one.”
Stravinsky is on record as having said that the storm only broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.”
According to a piece in The Arts Desk, “the newspapers dubbed it ‘Le Massacre du printemps.’ Diaghilev’s satisfied comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”
Whether or not 40 people were arrested that night will probably remain a point of contention at least until someone decides to research the police records for that night in the Champs Elysees precinct.
But let’s now leave Paris to Paris, for today, in fact, we wander the streets of the City of Westminster, where, a month later, the scandalous Rite of Spring was offered to the judgment of London’s theatergoers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Following the six-day run in Paris in May-June 1913, the four-day London run opened July 11.
Today the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, like so many London houses, hosts one of those abominable, endlessly-running musicals. In this case, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about which we couldn’t possibly care less. Do your best, when perusing the photos, to blot the Charlie marquees out in your mind. It will be easier, and more pleasant, to imagine Diaghilev, Sokolova, Nijinsky and company perhaps nervously arriving at the theater and furtively entering by way of the stage door on Russell Street. Imagine crowds of excited ticket holders gathering outside the front of the theater, waiting for the doors to open so that they could take their seats and get a glimpse for themselves of this dastardly ballet…

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Except that it appears London didn’t see anything dastardly at all. Here, as quoted in a book called Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician and Modernist, is what Henry Cope Colles, the music critic for The Times of London, had to say:
The functions of the composer and the producer are so balanced that it is possible to see every movement on the stage and at the same time to hear every note of the music. But the fusion goes deeper than this. The combination of the two elements of music and dancing does actually produce a new compound result, expressible in terms of rhythm – much as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen produces a totally different compound, water.”
Damn! “Balanced!” “Fusion!” “New compound result!”
Where are the flying tomatoes? The razzes? The fights and the arrests?
I would like to point out, by the way, that this review appeared in the Times the next morning after the London premiere. That is, Colles winged this – he hurried from the theater to wherever he was wont to write, and he filed this story on short deadline in order to make the morning’s papers. And look at that clarity of thought, the insight, the ability to make sense of what we now know was something absolutely, entirely new. Folks, I’m impressed. My hat’s off to Henry Cope Colles, my new hero.
On the occasion of the work’s 100th anniversary in 2013, James S. Murphy, seeking to debunk the old tale about a riotous premiere, discussed the London premiere  in the Paris Review:
When the Times of London reviewed the British premier (sic), it declared in the first sentence, ‘London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.’ The review notes that ‘the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.’ The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: ‘Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.’ While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.
Murphy goes on:
“…The extent to which this [Paris first-night] disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience ‘is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance [my understanding is that there were four] was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.’ That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues (sic) to bedevil many lovers of the work.”
Fascinating stuff, I say. If you’re interested in the reasons for, and the background of, this story, start your search with the sources I have quoted. There is good information to be had. But my purpose is not to dot the last “i” in this tale, but rather, simply, to take the time to walk around the walls of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and to take the time to think about what it might have been like that opening night in London in the summer of 1913. How might it have felt, how might it have looked and sounded. Apart from the vile Charlie marquees (and that moronic quote of some critic who shall never deserve to share his profession with H.C. Colles [“Dazzling Charlie is Choc-Full of Delights!!!!!!!”]) this structure affords us a nice opportunity to do that. It appears to have changed little in the 100+ years since Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky stormed into London to play The Right of Spring.
One more tidbit: The four London performances were the last ever of the original Nijinsky choreography. Shortly thereafter, Nijinsky ran off and married Romola de Pulszky, infuriating, and breaking the heart of, Diaghilev beyond measure. As such, this theater here marks the end of the “scandalous” first performances of The Rite of Spring, as well as the end of the storied collaboration between Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

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