ARTicle Magazine

A nose for talent like no other

David Larsen · 09 May 2017

Orchestra Wellington's 2017 season celebrates the incomparable impresario Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev.

The Impresario

Firebird, the first concert in Orchestra Wellington's The Impresario season, is on Saturday 13 May, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington.

“A giant,” said Sergei Prokofiev. “Undoubtedly the only one whose dimensions increase the more he recedes into the distance.” Francis Poulenc called him “a wizard, a sorcerer”. To Claude Debussy he was “that terrible and charming man, who could make stones dance”. “An amiable sort,” said Erik Satie, “but he’s an awful person.”

The difficulty in discussing Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev is we live in an age of default hyperbole. If you flip open The Impresario: Season ‘17, the booklet devoted to Orchestra Wellington’s 2017 Diaghilev-themed series of concerts, the first sentence you meet will be this one: “Welcome to the most exciting season Orchestra Wellington has ever presented!” The thing is, the enthusiasm is justified.

Orchestra Wellington Musical Director Marc Taddei: “Celebrating and telling the story of Diaghilev and the immense role he had in the development of modernism seemed like an opportunity too good to miss. I can’t think of a figure who even approaches him for impact, let alone rivals him. Just to pick two works premiered in 1913, Le Sacre is the most famous musical work of modernism and Debussy’s Jeux can easily be heard in a post-modernist manner, in terms of its discontinuity of form. I could have picked any number of other brilliant works commissioned by Diaghilev, but these are monuments of western civilisation.”

Rite of Spring

Image: Orchestra Wellington

Taddei has in fact picked several other brilliant works – each of the season’s six concerts has a Diaghilev commission as its anchor – but it’s worth focusing for a moment on Le Sacre, full title Le Sacre du Printemps, aka The Rite of Spring. The ballet’s origin story is one of the most famous in music (the rioting first night Parisian audience, the uneasy tilt toward a positive second night, the total success of the third, the “unprecedented exaltation” that greeted the first music-only performance a year later). A point not usually emphasised in this story: the date of that successful return performance was 18 February 1914, less than six months before the outbreak of World War I.

Diaghilev was Russian. He was also gay, during a period of relatively restrained upper class Russian homophobia (which would have seemed like tolerance by the standards of the previous century, but, as Diaghilev became keenly aware, was not). He was raised in wealth by a father and stepmother who lived well beyond their considerable means; the family fortune ran out in his 18th year. He studied law, but wanted to be a composer; he took this ambition hopefully to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the composition master at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music, who explained to him he had no talent.


Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev.

Each of these facts has huge weight for anyone attempting to understand the man who made himself into musical modernism’s godfather and who – as Prokofiev’s comment about his stature manages to imply without stating – becomes more elusive the more closely you look. But in attempting to explain his importance, the explanatory facts I would begin with are that he was Russian and arrived in Paris a handful of years before 1914, or, in other words, during the years of the Franco-Russian alliance. If you happened to be brilliant, and mercurial, and driven, and insanely devoted to music... and if you happened to have spent years making personal connections in the Russian musical world, spotting upcoming talent and making a mental list of people worth cultivating... and if you happened to have worn out your welcome in the upper echelons of Russian arts administration by being pushy, opinionated and, conveniently for your enemies, unapologetically gay... then the end of the first decade of the 20th century was a very good time to arrive in Paris as the head of a brand new Russian ballet company. Our friends the Russians, my dear: so exotic! So fresh! So deliciously Russian! Calculated exoticism as a door-opening strategy for new and genuinely ground-breaking music: Coco Chanel, who collaborated with Diaghilev in the 1920s, is supposed to have said he “invented Russia for foreigners”.

Which would be where Igor Stravinsky comes in. In 1909, when the young composer was unknown ouitside Russia, Diaghilev commissioned him to orchestrate two pieces by Frédéric Chopin for the introductory Paris season of Diaghilev’s as-yet-unnamed ballet company. The season was a vast success. The following year Diaghilev set out to accentuate the things that had worked, naming the company the Ballets Russes and commissioning his first entirely new ballet, based around the Russian myth of the Firebird. He initially approached Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov. There are conflicting stories as to whether Lyadov accepted the commission and failed to deliver, or turned it down, or took too long deciding; for whatever reason, Diaghilev moved on to his riskier second choice.


Image: Orchestra Wellington

Alex Ross, in his essential chronicle of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise, describes what happened next: “Overnight, under the spotlight of Diaghilev’s patronage, an unknown became a phenomenon. Within days of his arrival for the Firebird premiere, Stravinsky met Proust, Gide, Saint-John Perse, Paul Claudel, Sarah Bernhardt, and all the major composers. ‘This goes further than Rimsky,’ Ravel wrote to a colleague after hearing Firebird. 'Come quickly.' Buoyed by the Paris atmosphere and by his impressive new fans, Stravinsky set to work on a second ballet...”

The Rite of Spring, the third of the three monumental ballets Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev in the space of four years, exists in the first instance because the Ballets Russe existed to perform it; more fundamentally, it exists because Diaghilev’s charmed spotlight let Stravinsky grow into himself with terrifying speed. This is what a great impresario could do. Looking up and down the history of music, I cannot find an impresario whose immediate impact and lasting importance compares to Diaghilev’s. He was by all accounts a conniving, charismatic bastard, a master of the art of running up bills and avoiding paying them, while somehow managing to keep the good will of the people he stiffed. He knew everyone, he had one of the best noses for talent in musical history, and by force of personality, guile and will he kept a major arts organisation together through the war years and into the 1920s. Orchestra Wellington has it right, in fact: he was The Impresario.

“We must create a breakthrough, we must amaze and not be afraid to amaze”

Sergei Diaghilev

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David Larsen reviews film and classical music for Metro magazine and writes about books for the New Zealand Herald and other publications.

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