On Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre, the PostClassical Ensemble led a quick and beguiling expedition 100 years into the past and about 4,000 miles to the east.
On paper, “Paris at Midnight: Jazz and Surrealism in the 1920s” sounded like something lifted from my undergrad course load; in practice, this immersive history lesson felt like a model for how classical music — and the other sounds that swirl around it — can be engagingly presented.
Music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez has recently taken the reins of PostClassical following the departure last year of longtime executive producer and historian Joseph Horowitz. Their combined forces created an impressive legacy over the past decade, a collaboration that cracked open various musical niches the way you might open a window in a stuffy room, allowing in a gust of contextual fresh air.
Gil-Ordóñez teamed up with the National Gallery of Art’s senior curator of modern art, Harry Cooper, to devise Wednesday’s program. And while the selections were bound by time and place — the percolating center of interwar artistic culture that was Paris in the 1920s — the real connective threads went deeper.
Accordionist Simone Baron opened the program with a seamlessly scene-setting medley of old tunes: Mistinguett’s “Il m’a vue nue,” “C’est mon gigolo” (a French version of the 1924 tango by Leonello Casucci and Julius Brammer, and a forerunner to Irving Caesar’s 1929 foxtrotter), and Damia’s “Tu ne sais pas aimer” and “C’est Paris.” It was music you may be more accustomed to strolling past, but Baron’s expressive performance lent them living, breathing vitality and exquisite nuance.
Baron’s performance was a prelude to a screening of René Clair’s 1924 film “Entr’acte,” which first premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as an intermission to “Relâche,” the final performance staged by Jean Börlin’s avant-garde Ballets Suédois. (In the program, Cooper points out this was, “the last gasp of Paris Dada.”) Below the screen, Gil-Ordóñez led the orchestra in Erik Satie’s “Cinéma,” the first-ever film score composed shot-for-shot.
You’d never take “Cinéma” for Satie, especially if you consider the composer’s name synonymous with the ennui-steeped piano reflections of his “Gymnopédies” and “Gnossiennes.” Here, Satie revels in repetition and propulsion, employing patterning techniques later made trademarks of Steve Reich or Terry Riley. He creates melodic tessellations that over time suggest larger designs (but in the moment come off like prototypical ringtones).
The orchestra attacked it with a brisk and bright approach, moving through Satie’s 10 “scenes” with crispness and wit — the latter crucial for any earnest engagement with this particular period. It can be hard to remember through the sepia-tinting of our cultural memory that these folks were extreme goofballs and that taking them seriously meant not, quite.
The dialogue between Satie’s music and Clair’s film packed the uncanny thrill of a seance, not least of all because at one point Börlin comes back from the dead. It was also fun to watch “Entr’acte,” employ every available bell and whistle in Clair’s experimental toolbox. His use of slow dissolves, jump cuts and handcrafted special effects (e.g. a spinning ballerina becomes a fanciful floral bloom when filmed from below) capture a world in the throes of transition. Not for nothing did this program open with an intermission.
The Satie was followed by a screening of a dance scene from Josephine Baker’s lacking-but-landmark 1934 film “Zouzou,” the first major motion picture with a Black leading woman.
Baker made her Paris debut in 1925 with her group La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. New Yorker writer Janet Flanner described it thus: “The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable — [Baker’s] magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe — Paris.”
Baker’s star continued to rise, shifting from the Revue to her own show at the Folies Bergère in 1926, and rising to icon status among the Parisian cognoscenti — Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, all big fans.
From our contemporary perspective, it’s perhaps impossible not to view the Parisian fascination with African culture — le tumulte noir — as a collision of both genuine appreciation and racist exoticization. But in just a minute or two of “Zouzou,” it’s equally hard not to see how Baker transcended and capitalized on those expectations and stereotypes. Baker was, more than most, an artist who embodied an era of sweeping transition, her performances a busy intersection of jazz, dance and sculpture, even painting if you can parse the impossible lines of her body (including her double-jointed fingers) — a kind of living cubism.
Following “Zouzou,” clarinetist David Jones led the quartet of guitarist Jim Roberts, double bassist Aaron Clay and drummer Joseph Connell in a short jazz set in tribute to the music of another American export (and soon after, French deport) Sidney Bechet. Jones toggled between clarinet and some chill-inducing soprano saxophone for searing runs through “Si tu vois ma mère” (joined by concertmaster Netanel Draiblate), “Sheik of Araby,” and “12th St. Rag.” Jones tore through skyrocket solos, his horn here a balm, there a blade, and all over the theater knees helplessly bounced.
This sweet sidestep was a fine primer for “Piano Concerto in G Major,” which Ravel composed between 1929 and 1931, and which pianist Drew Petersen embraced with equal parts intimacy and intensity.
In many ways, this concerto sounds like a souvenir from Ravel’s four-month tour of the United States in 1928, and his impactful encounter in New York City with George Gershwin (who famously asked Ravel for composition lessons). It satisfies structural presumptions of a conventional concerto, but bristles with newness from the jump.
Gil-Ordóñez led the 37-piece ensemble with attentive precision and a lively sense of humor that Petersen carried over to the keyboard. Many players can get carried away in the pyrotechnics of the first movement (“Allegramente”), but Petersen brought a wonderfully soft touch and bejeweled articulation that made for enchanting dialogue with harpist Eric Sabatino.
Petersen’s pace through the second movement (“Adagio assai”) may have leaned a touch too tranquil, but the orchestra’s entrance seemed to reconnect him. Flutist Kimberly Valerio and clarinetists Jones and Amanda Eich also gave gorgeous contributions. And Gil-Ordóñez took a lean and mean approach to the Presto finale — its racing piano, dipping trombones, percussive snaps and goofy adieu all tightly managed and keenly balanced.
As a concert, “Paris at Midnight” was a sweet, sentimental and musically energizing guided tour through a particularly roaring decade of music. But PostClassical also excels at playing professor — demonstrating not just how the music of a given time and place sounds but why. Come with open ears, and you leave with a new picture of history in your mind — and probably an old clarinet lick looping in your head.
A previous version of this story included two misspellings of pianist Drew Petersen’s last name. The story has been updated.