Your concert with the ANAM Orchestra features music commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. What made this era so creatively fertile?

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes started just a few years before the First World War and the political context of Europe helped him to achieve an immense success. Revolutions and civil wars brought together in Paris some of the most talented artists exiled from the whole continent and Diaghilev was clever enough to put them together to create some of the finest works that we have from that period. It was adversity and the search for meaning that made this era so creatively fertile.

Eduardo StrausserEduardo Strausser. Photo © Charles Brooks

You’re presenting the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, selections from Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat Suite and the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Why did you choose these three works?

The works we perform are very different and similar at the same time. They all use popular culture and folklore as the main material for the compositions. De Falla and Stravinsky explore the human condition through archetypal love stories and their music is programmatic. Borodin’s Dances open the program because they were also one of the openers in Diaghilev’s very first Ballets Russes.

Why was Prince Igor such a success for Diaghilev?

The Parisian audience had never heard or seen anything like Prince Igor before. The exoticism and power of this unique opera left the European elite in shock. The resignification of a very Western art form into an unknown universe caused a huge fascination.

What inspired him to begin commissioning music for the Ballet Russes?

Diaghilev was a visionary impresario who realised he could have a successful business and at the same time be an advocate of the new avant-garde movements that were emerging in those days. This combination was his great inspiration.

How important was Diaghilev in the careers of the composers he commissioned?

Diaghilev’s contribution to the art world in that period is enormous. Stravinsky, for example, composed The Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes and with this piece changed the course of music history.

Why do you think so much of the music he commissioned has been so enduring?’

I think Diaghilev understood that audiences enjoy a good story. They live through the characters and identify themselves with what they see on stage. In this aspect the audiences of our day are not different from the ones Diaghilev had more than one hundred years ago.

What are the challenges and pleasures of performing this music for you and for orchestras?

These are very difficult pieces to perform because of the rich and complex rhythmic patterns and the huge colour palette that the composers create with some very unusual instruments combinations. This music is so great that even the challenging moments are moments of great pleasure.

What do you think audiences today respond to in this music?

Because this music was made for dance I think the effect in the audience today is pretty much the same as it was one hundred years ago. It is impossible to listen to these pieces and not feel the rhythm through your body.

Eduardo Strausser conducts the ANAM Orchestra at Melbourne Recital Centre on September 7