The didgeridoo, an Aboriginal wind instrument thought to be the world’s oldest, has “a haunting sound,” according to Michael Christie, music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Christie makes liberal use of the instrument in “Earth Awakened,” the kickoff to the Philharmonic’s 53rd season, which will premier on Feb. 3 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.
Composer Peter Sculthorpe said in a recent interview that, “I have always been attracted to the [didgeridoo] which is, in my opinion, the quintessential Australian instrument.”
The show will begin with a pair of compositions by the Australian Sculthorpe, “Earth Cry” and “Mangrove,” both of which feature William Barton, an Australian of Aboriginal descent who is coming to Brooklyn specifically for the performances, playing the didgeridoo (pronouced dij-uh-REE-doo).
“When programming this concert, I immediately thought of Peter’s pieces because they’re so connected to the earth,” says Christie. “‘Mangrove’ brings to mind the spaciousness of the Outback, and ‘Earth Cry’ is really a ritual tribal dance.”
“Earth Cry” is based upon an Aboriginal chant from northern Australia,” Sculthorpe said in a recent interview. “I chose the chant because, in changing the mode from major to minor, it is not unlike melodies of my own devising”
“Mangrove,” the perfect introduction to Sculthorpe’s musical style, is an 18-minute work sculpted as a mammoth, imposing structure (think of Ayers Rock, one of the most monumental of Australia’s natural wonders). The clusters of sound in the piece are repeated with minute variations — first we hear brass and percussion, followed by basses and violins — coming together to create a massive wall of sound.
Despite the instrument’s long history Down Under, “neither piece was originally written with the didgeridoo in mind,” Christie admits. “But Peter, who already had an association with the [Queensland] orchestra, had talked about the original inspiration of the pieces. They didn’t directly quote anything from Aboriginal music, so we asked if he’d incorporate that back into the works.”
The presence of the didgeridoo, Christie believes, is essential to understanding the connection between Sculthorpe’s and Stravinsky’s works on this program. “Utilizing this native folk instrument sets the scene very well for playing ‘The Rite of Spring,’” he says.
Igor Stravinsky’s classic ballet will be danced by the Brooklyn-based company nicholasleichterdance and will feature its founder’s world-premiere choreography.
Listening to “The Rite of Spring” today, it’s difficult to believe that it was such a controversial work — in fact, it caused a riot upon its Paris debut in 1913 — but it’s also lost none of its purely visceral power, even after it has been co-opted by so many commercial enterprises in the intervening 90-plus years, including the famous appearance in Walt Disney’s 1940 film, “Fantasia.”
That dramatic power will be on display on the BAM opera house stage, as Stravinsky’s canonical work once again becomes a ballet, thanks to this new project for the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
“Our principal consideration is that this performance is the kick-off of a three-year project where we will do each of the major Stravinsky ballets [‘The Rite of Spring,’ ‘Petruschka’ and ‘The Firebird’], with world-premiere choreography from a different dance company,” Christie explains. “We thought that we’d start off with Nicholas Leichter, since we had such a great collaboration with his ensemble doing ‘Carmina Burana’ last season. We feel that his style is very physical and very athletic, which makes sense for a work like ‘The Rite of Spring.’”
Although he is choreographing Stravinsky’s masterpiece for the first time, Leichter doesn’t feel the weight of huge expectations.
“Those people who are already familiar with the dance context of this work will surely be looking for a new interpretation,” he says. “Luckily, I am already quite familiar with the score, and I’ve already seen versions of it done, both for ballet and for modern dance. It’s a very dramatic score, and I am confident that I can put my own stamp on it.”
The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs “Earth Awakened” on Feb. 3 at 8 pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene); tickets are $20 to $60, $10 for students. For information call (718) 636-4100 or visit brooklynphilharmonic.org.