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The PostClassical Ensemble and Pianist Drew Peterson Present an Exciting Music History Lesson at the Kennedy Center

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On Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the PostClassical Ensemble led a fast and seductive expedition 100 years in the past and some 4,000 miles east.

On paper, “Paris at Midnight: Jazz and Surrealism in the 1920s” sounded like something out of my undergraduate course load; in practice, this immersive history lesson felt like a model of how classical music – and the other sounds that swirl around it – can be presented in an engaging way.

Music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez recently took the helm of PostClassical following the departure last year of executive producer and longtime historian Joseph Horowitz. Their combined strengths have created an impressive legacy over the past decade, a collaboration that has opened up various musical niches like you might open a window in a stuffy room, allowing for a contextual breath of fresh air.

Gil-Ordóñez teamed up with the National Gallery of Art’s Senior Curator of Modern Art, Harry Cooper, to design Wednesday’s program. And while the selections were linked by time and place – the percolating center of interwar artistic culture that was Paris in the 1920s – the real connecting threads deepened.

Accordionist Simone Baron opened the program with a perfectly scenic mix of old tunes: “Mistinguett’s”He saw me naked“, “C’est mon gigolo” (a French version of the 1924 Tango by Leonello Casucci and Julius Brammer, and a 1929 precursor to Irving Caesar foxtrotter), and that of Damia “You don’t know how to love” and “It’s Paris.” It was music you might be more used to skimming through, but Baron’s expressive performance gave them a living, breathing vitality and exquisite nuance.

Baron’s performance was a prelude to a screening of René Clair’s 1924 film ‘Entr’acte’, which premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as an intermission to ‘Relâche’, the final performance staged by Jean Börlin’s avant-garde Swedish Ballet. (In the program, Cooper points out that it was “the last breath of Paris Dada.”) Below the screen, Gil-Ordóñez led the orchestra in Erik Satie’s “Cinéma”, the very first film score composed plane for plane. .

You would never take “Cinéma” for Satie, especially if you consider the composer’s name synonymous with the boring piano reflections of his “Gymnopedias” and “Gnossiennes.” Here, Satie revels in repetition and propulsion, employing modeling techniques that later became trademarks of Steve Reich or Terry Riley. He creates melodic tessellations that, over time, suggest larger designs (but for now sound like prototypical ringtones).

The orchestra attacked it with a lively and luminous approach, moving through Satie’s 10 “scenes” with sharpness and wit – the latter crucial to any serious engagement with this particular period. It can be hard to remember through the sepia hue of our cultural memory that these people were extreme goofs and taking them seriously meant not quite.

The dialogue between Satie’s music and Clair’s film packed the eerie thrill of a screening, not least because at some point Börlin comes back from the dead. It was also fun watching “Entr’acte”, using all the bells and whistles available in Clair’s experimental toolbox. His use of slow crossfades, jump cuts, and hand-crafted special effects (for example, a spinning ballerina becomes a whimsical floral blossom when filmed from below) captures a world in the throes of transition. It is not for nothing that this program opened with an intermission.

The Satie was followed by a screening of a dance scene from Josephine Baker’s 1934 film, “Zouzou”, the first major film with a black woman.

Baker made his debut in Paris in 1925 with his group La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. New York writer Janet Flanner described it thus: “The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable – [Baker’s] gorgeous dark body, a new model that proved to the French for the first time that black was beautiful, and the shrill response of white male audiences in the capital of hedonism of all Europe – Paris.

Baker’s star continued to rise, moving from the Revue to his own show at the Folies Bergère in 1926, and becoming an icon among Paris connoisseurs – Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, all great fans.

From our contemporary perspective, it is perhaps impossible not to see the Parisian fascination with African culture — the black tumult – as a collision of both genuine appreciation and racist exoticism. But in just a minute or two of “Zouzou,” it’s equally hard not to see how Baker transcended and capitalized on those expectations and stereotypes. Baker was, more than most, an artist who embodied an era of radical transition, her performances a lively intersection of jazz, dance and sculpture, even painting if you can analyze the impossible lines of her body (including her fingers double-jointed) – a kind of living cubism.

After “Zouzou”, clarinetist David Jones led the quartet of guitarist Jim Roberts, double bassist Aaron Clay and drummer Joseph Connell in a short jazz set in tribute to the music of another American export (and soon after, French deportation) Sidney Bechet. Jones switched between clarinet and a chill-inducing soprano saxophone for searing passages through “If you see my mother(joined by concertmaster Netanel Draiblate),Sheikh of Arabia,” and “12th Rag Street.” Jones ripped flare solos, his horn here a balm, there a blade, and all over the theater knees bounced helplessly.

This gentle step aside was a beautiful introduction to the “Piano Concerto in G major”, which Ravel composed between 1929 and 1931, and which pianist Drew Petersen embraced with as much intimacy as intensity.

In many ways, this concerto sounds like a memory of Ravel’s four-month tour of the United States in 1928, and his impactful meeting in New York with George Gershwin (who asked famous Ravel for composition lessons). It satisfies the structural presumptions of a conventional concerto, but bristles with novelty from the jump.

Gil-Ordóñez led the 37-piece ensemble with attentive precision and a lively sense of humor that Petersen transmitted to the keyboard. Many musicians may get carried away by the pyrotechnics of the first movement (‘Allegramente’), but Peterson provided a wonderfully soft touch and bejeweled articulation that made for an enchanting dialogue with harpist Eric Sabatino.

Petersen’s rhythm through the second movement (“Adagio assai”) was perhaps a bit too leisurely, but the orchestral entry seemed to reconnect him. Flautist Kimberly Valerio and clarinetists Jones and Amanda Eich also made wonderful contributions. And Gil-Ordóñez took a lean, mean approach to the Presto finale – his racing piano, plunging trombones, percussive slams and awkward goodbyes, all tightly managed and perfectly balanced.

As a concert, “Paris at midnight” was a gentle, sentimental and musically energizing guided tour through a decade of particularly roaring music. But PostClassical also excels at playing teacher – not only demonstrating How? ‘Or’ What the music of a given time and place sounds but Why. Come with your ears open and you walk away with a new image of the story in your mind – and probably an old clarinet bang on a loop in your head.