In the big classical concert of the summer, Stravinsky's score to The Firebird unfurls its familiar dark Russian mysticism with glints of impressionism at the Mann next month. But the production will also send out some unexpected cultural signals. The full Firebird will be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the story playing out on stage will reflect something of the national experience of its creative directors - from South Africa.
Dubbed Firebird: Reimagined, the piece receives its live-orchestra world premiere at the Mann on July 20, after a recorded-music run in South Africa. From the Mann, it will move on to Wolf Trap, Ravinia, the Hollywood Bowl, and other summer venues.
The idea was the brainchild of concert promoter and agent IMG Artists, which approached South African artist Janni Younge about adapting something for her medium: puppets.
What Younge came up with is hardly of the papier-mâché-over-chicken-wire variety.
The dragon of this production has a wingspan of 33 feet and weighs in at 440 pounds. Some of these puppets, to be operated by the dancers, have extremely complex mechanisms to control movement - "pretty high-tech," Younge says. "The beast has three manipulators - one inside the body, one in the head, and it's walking and flicking its ears and opening its mouth and has teeth. There are all these little subtleties that people won't notice, like the teeth lifting up so the mouth can close back up. At the studio, that's a lot of work. You have to work them well to create the beauty of illusion. You have to build them elaborately from day one."
Younge, who has worked on the project for two years, was director of South Africa's widely adored Handspring Puppet Company (which created the puppets for War Horse) and now heads her own production company. She says she had been only vaguely familiar with Stravinsky's score. But what she and Cape Town choreographer Jay Pather heard had tremendous personal resonance. "There are two conversations going on in the piece - one is an individual striving toward balance of power, which means negative and destructive as well as passionate and creative," she says.
"At the same time, there is a sense in South African society where everyone thought we were free at last, and it was all wonderful, and everyone believed in it.
"But 20 years on, so much is the same. There is so much anger and frustration, so many people saying that nothing has changed. So there is really a meeting of both a very positive transformative energy in the last 20 years, and at the same time a reexamination of us as a country, which is not where we want to be."
Firebird: Reimagined, then, she says, is "a metaphor for an evolving society," a narrative perhaps not unfamiliar here.
It might also be seen as a metaphor for an evolving institution. Though the Philadelphia Orchestra's presence at the Mann Center each summer has remained at depressed levels for the last few seasons, the Mann is intent on maintaining a classical series and using classical music for a social purpose - extending both its traditional season and mission.
It has retained Nolan Williams Jr., who has worked extensively at the Kennedy Center, as its festival artistic director, and last year it devised with him a network of programs under the Liberty: Unplugged! banner that included concerts, a poetry slam, a Twitter town-hall meeting, and newly commissioned music.
The goal is to expand the Mann's footprint: geographically, with visiting concerts and master classes in churches, schools, and in neighborhoods beyond the main campus in Fairmount Park; and artistically, with a slate of programs that go beyond just concerts and more deeply into education.
The Mann, for instance, worked with students from the KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, nearby on Parkside Avenue, to create an original Firebird Urban Youth Suite, inspired by the firebird story. The firebird theme extends to related programs at the Free Library, the Rosenbach, and the Philadelphia Zoo. The Mann also imported a Howard University production of Sarafina!, the Broadway musical about the 1976 Soweto student uprising. (That free morning performance June 14 at the Mann is sold out.)
"We believe in music and arts as a force for social good," Williams says. "We want to get the Mann out of the Mann."
"It's about mission and values," Mann president/CEO Catherine Cahill says. "It's about the Mann being accessible and reflecting our region and serving the population we have. We do not think of ourselves as sitting in an ivory tower."
The creators of Firebird: Reimagined also worked to integrate the visual aspects with the music, with dancers moving "through the orchestra while it is playing, so the reach of the puppetry goes out and over the orchestra," says Steven A. Linder, the IMG Artists senior vice president who helped develop the project. "That was very important to us, rather than having everything happen downstage in front of the orchestra, which doesn't feel like an integrated performance. We didn't want the orchestra to be a musical backdrop."
Williams has come up with a perhaps deeper cultural melding to share the program with Younge's Firebird. He has taken two Russian folk songs that inspired Stravinsky, "The Larch Tree" and "The Vain Suitor," and arranged them for the South African musical aesthetic of vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which will perform them on the first half of the program.
To Williams, all of these programs are thematically tied. Sarafina!, although about apartheid, has echoes of Cleveland and Ferguson for young audiences, he says. Concepts of good, evil, freedom, and rebirth culminate in The Firebird's end, when the soul of the Kastchei, in a giant egg suspended over the orchestra, morphs into something Williams says "will blow audiences away."
"We talk about the arts coming alive," he says. "You have to meet your people where they are."
The Philadelphia Orchestra led by Cristian Macelaru, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo,
at 8 p.m. July 20 at the Mann Center, 52nd St. and Parkside Ave. Tickets: $15-$55. Information: 800-745-3000, www.manncenter.org.