Music takes flight (sans fights) in PIFA rite of spring

Somewhere along the path, the event's name was changed to the more encompassing, embracing branding of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts 2011.

Still, browse through the selection of musical offerings - special object of our affection - or chat it up with the festival's artistic producer Barbara Silverstein. You'll soon understand why this month-long soiree (also heavy with dance, theater and art-exhibition components) was originally to be called "Stravinsky In Paris."

The nut idea, explained Silverstein, was to evoke and take new inspiration from an extra-fertile period of artistic activity in early 20th-century Paris. 'Twas a time when disparate styles and forms of art (and its makers) came together to shake up the status quo, nudge each other along and spark movements still considered "modern" and invigorating decades later.

The fire starter was "The Rite of Spring," a 1913 Ballet Russes of Paris collaboration between the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky and his fellow expat from the Ukraine, the daring choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, with sets and costumes by the painter Nicholas Roerich. Introducing strident sounds and (worse!) sordid, nontraditional imagery, "Rite" so shocked the ballet establishment that fights broke out mid-performance between naysayers and supporters.

Nothing of that kind is expected at PIFA, which began last night and continues through May 1. But organizers do hope to kindle roaring blazes of excitment with the dozens of new commissions and collaborations it has inspired.

Take "Hope: An Oratorio," debuting at 3 p.m. April 24 in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center (Broad and Spruce streets, $28-$68). Performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia with a mixed bag of singers, Jonathan Leshnoff's work fuses classical, jazz and world music forms in a novel fashion "that's moving, beautiful, and accessible," said Silverstein. "It makes you want to get up and dance."

Or how about "La Baker" at Temple University April 20-21 (7:30 p.m., Conwell Dance Theater, Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue, $15 and $20)? This collaboration by choreographer Kariamu Welsh, playwright Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon and Temple dance and theater students builds on the life of Josephine Baker, a vivacious African-American singer/dancer/comedienne who suffered rejection on home turf long after she'd risen to superstar status in Paris.

The ties that bind

There's an early 20th-century French connection in most of the festival's musical presentations, though it's more obvious with some than others.

Classic tunesmith Cole Porter lived in and took inspiration from the City of Light (dreaming up "I Love Paris"). So that's inspired a "Cole Porter Night" with pianist Reiko Okuda and bass player Warren Oree, at the Woodmere Art Museum, April 15 (6-8 p.m., Germantown Avenue and Bells Mill Road, $10) and also Porter's inclusion on a bill with the certifiably French composers Debussy and Ravel that Philly Pops has themed "Springtime in Paris," April 23 at Verizon Hall (8 p.m., $32-$92).

While best known for his contributions to the contemporary worlds of R&B and hip-hop, Philly's own Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, of the Roots, has decided to put his unique spin on Parisian music of 100 years ago (roll over Claude Debussy) with help from a bunch of friends, including the France-based, Israeli-born folk-pop chanteuse Keren Ann. That fascinating collaboration hits at Verizon Hall April 17 (8 p.m., $35-$65). Following the concert is a free Underground Post-Show Party, where ?uestlove will spin a "festival DJ set" in the Kimmel's Perelman Theater with notable local DJs Rich Medina and AfroDJiak.

Links between the sonic qualities of Debussy and the Asian composer Toro Takemisu will be explored in music premieres by the Network for New Music Ensemble billed as "Trade Winds from Japan," April 15 at International House (8 p.m., 3701 Chestnut St., $10-$20).

The "Afropean" stylings of the French/Cameroonian sister act Les Nubians lift listeners higher come April 21 at the Perelman (8:30 p.m., $25). Think Fela, Fitzgerald and Piaf, rolled into one.

"Jewish Connections to Music in Paris 1910-1920" will be drawn with a concert and reception April 28 at Drexel's Anthony Drexel Picture Gallery (8-10 p.m., 3141 Chestnut St., $5-$10).

Also speaking to the fused Jewish/French experience is Yiddish diva Theresa Tova's one-woman presentation, "Bella: The Color of Love." This cabaret concoction shares the story of Marc Chagall's wife and muse, Bella Chagall, and by rights ought to be playing at the Philadelphia Art Museum, where Chagall's work is now being celebrated in a big way. But Tova will ring her Bella at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre (8 p.m. April 28-30, 2 p.m. May 1, Broad and Lombard streets , $25-$29)

There's even a French-lesbian angle at the festival, with the world premiere of Joseph Hallman's "Raving Beauty." The composition is based on the life of Mercedes de Acosta, a French author who bedded (and later biographically outed) famous conquests, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Isadora Duncan and more! The Dolce Suono Ensemble introduces it tomorrow in an intimate concert at the Rosenbach Museum, where many of the author's manuscripts are held (2-4 p.m., 2010 Delancey Place, $5-$10).

Le Jazz Hot

A whole festival could be devoted just to American/French jazz connections. The French embraced le jazz Americaine as a liberating force. So it is that visiting pianist Martial Solal (maybe France's best) will be working out on a Jazz Up Close presentation at the Perelman Theater tomorrow (8 p.m., $32-$38) with student players from Berklee College of Music and Temple. For the first half, they'll recreate a famous 1959 concert by Thelonious Monk, one of the most brilliant of U.S. artists who got bigger props in Paris.

Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra return the favor with a French-inclined program May 1 at Verizon Hall (3 p.m., $36-$80).

And a new musical-theater piece by Jann Ellis-Scruggs, "La Joie De Vivre," focuses on the migration of African-American musicians, visual artists and writers from Harlem to Paris, at Cheyney University (3 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 p.m. April 19-20, Dudley Theatre, 1837 University Circle, Cheyney, free.)

Rites of passage

Hardly a surprise, Stravinsky and "The Rite of Spring" will be referenced multiple times during the festival. The work will be performed and discussed by the Kennett Symphony of Chester County tomorrow at Westminster Presbyterian Church (3 and 8 p.m., 10 W. Pleasant Grove Road, West Chester, $35 in advance, $40 day of).

Then it pops up as part of the program from L'Orchestra National de France, at Verizon Hall on April 15 (8 p.m., $39- $113).

More intriguing, Center City Opera will summon up a new vaudeville/opera reimagining the work's birth in "Rites, Rhythm . . . Riot" (8 p.m. April 28, 2 p.m. April 29, Perelman Theater; 8 p.m. April 30, Gordon Theater, Rutgers-Camden Arts Center, 303 Cooper St., Camden; $10-$125).

And "Basil Twist's Petrushka" pays homage to another landmark Stravinsky score in dancing puppet form infused with Japanese and Czech traditions (various times through April 16, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St., $20-$30).

Freebie fun

Looking for some free concert action at the festival? Hot Club of Philadelphia shares the story of gypsy jazz icon Django Reinhardt in the Commonwealth Plaza of the Kimmel Center, at 11 a.m. on April 16.

And WXPN-FM (88.5) is hosting a bunch of festive shows through the month in the same location. Their lineup for Wednesday nights from 5-7 p.m. includes Bobby Long next week, Franz Nicolay April 20 and John Wesley Harding April 27, each with dance parties to follow. And you can stop by (or listen on the radio) for lunchtime concerts Fridays at noon, starting today with Terry Adams & the New NRBQ.

For tickets and more information, call 215-546-PIFA or go to www.pifa.org.