Did such fans notice that Friday's performance of the Beethoven Second, though willing, was rather ragged, while "Flos Campi" -- a piece woven around excerpts from the "Song of Solomon," though words are never actually uttered by the chamber choir onstage -- had a smoother performance? (Daniel Foster, principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra, was an attractive soloist in a work that is so aching to be palpably lovely that it gets a little cloying.)
It's a mistake to second-guess the audience, and yet some of that second-guessing inevitably occurs when one deliberately departs from standard concert form. "Project Petrushka," as the UMSO dubbed this exploration of the Stravinsky work, is the equivalent of removing the gold frame from an Old Master painting and seeing how it holds up in a more open environment. Led by Doug Fitch -- an artist-in-residence at the university whose portfolio includes stage direction and puppetry, and who has experimented with visual interpretations of musical performance before (with, among others, the NSO) -- the performance included puppets, handheld video cameras and a certain amount of controlled chaos in the orchestra.
The players evoked the atmosphere of the Shrovetide fair in which much of this ballet is set by wearing boots, hats and scarves; eating baked goods and drinking tea; and milling about to change seats between each of the piece's four sections (something Ross encouraged the audience to do as well, though no one actually took him up on it).
There were some very good things about this unconventional presentation. The best was that the main focus was on the music: The visuals mainly served to enhance what you heard rather than (as so often happens) distracting your attention from it. For a trumpet solo, the trumpeter stood up amid several people showing him off with a flourish of hands, as if presenting a sideshow act; the result was that you really noticed the solo, a moment that in standard performance passes many people by.
A byproduct of this approach was that the orchestra was genuinely involved in the music. Ross said in his prefatory comments that the players had had considerable input into the things they did onstage, and it showed: Not only did they look as though they were having fun, but they also sounded like it. What in the Beethoven was ragged translated here into brash exuberance that was right in keeping with the young Stravinsky (this was actually the 1947 version of the work). The concertmaster, standing like a Gypsy fiddler for her solos, played with fierce assurance; the brass, muted to the point of inarticulacy in the Beethoven, were, well, brassier.