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NSO: ‘Beyond the Score®” of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’

Written By | Nov 19, 2014

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2014 – As part of its “Rite of Spring” festivities this weekend past, the National Symphony orchestra presented a special educational concert highlighting the origins and the composition of Stravinsky’s pioneering modernist ballet music.

Making use of an innovative multimedia package developed by the Chicago Symphony, the NSO’s “Beyond the Score®” concert began with a lively segment devoted to “Rite’s” unique background.

The Chicago Symphony’s website describes its “Beyond the Score” series as follows:

Beyond the Score is a musical experience like no other. Using live theater, stunning visual projections and orchestral excerpts played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, each installment will immerse you in the compelling stories behind symphonic music.

Enjoy three brand-new productions this season as the CSO transports you to the worlds of composers Pierre Boulez, Johannes Brahms and Maurice Ravel, bringing their music, passion, humor and joy vividly to life!

The NSO presentation of the “Rite” package, narrated by the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, Nigel Boon, featured a pair of local actors playing the parts of Stravinsky (Edward Christian) and his collaborator, Nikolai Roerich (Rick Foucheux) as they pore over archaeological and folkloric manuscripts piled high on a work desk, the segment also featured films and stills fleshing out the narrative as well as vintage audio clips of traditional Lithuanian and Russian folk tunes actually sung by villagers over a century ago. Such tunes were altered and folded into “Rite” as crucial motifs, something Stravinsky acknowledged at the time but later denied.

In addition to the films, stills, and on-stage narrative, the presentation also featured brief examples of old traditional instruments Stravinsky attempted to emulate in his score, with each vintage instrument played by guest flutist and ancient instrument expert Andrei Pidkivka.

The NSO was also on stage for this portion of the program, under the baton of assistant conductor Ankush Kumar. At frequent intervals, Mr. Kumar would bring the orchestra in to provide specific musical examples to underscore what was being discussed by the characters of Stravinsky and Roerich.

NSO's Assistant Conductor, Ankush Kumar. (Courtesy NSO)

NSO’s Assistant Conductor, Ankush Kumar. (Courtesy NSO)

After the intermission, NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach appeared on stage to conduct the entire “Rite of Spring,” enabling the audience to see with greater clarity how all the pieces of this musical puzzle finally came together.

Friday’s presentation, billed as suitable for families but not smaller children, was precisely that: a deeper, more intellectual exploration of how a particular musical work is conceived, developed and finally born having gone through an often unpredictable series of influences and occasional collaborations.

This particular script tended a bit toward the arcane, particularly when Nikolai Roerich was speculating and philosophizing. Yet the material, largely drawn from original sources, provided rare detail into the kind of minutiae that actually become part of a major work.

Music education of this nature, or at least resembling it, was once part of the national high school curriculum, which required most students to at least encounter the Western classical tradition. Most schools have tossed that by the wayside in this century, so it remains for programs like these, put on and promoted by orchestras like the NSO, to provide this still-vital core of our curriculum.

Clearly, there’s an eagerness to embrace such educational opportunities, as evidenced by the large number of young people in last Friday’s audience. And the rhythmic, percussive, bombastic “Rite of Spring” was an excellent vehicle to get them started. NSO is to be highly commended for offering this series to the public.

Early in 2015, NSO’s next “Beyond the Score” program will feature an equally wild and wooly classical music breakthrough work, the fantastic “Symphonie Fantastique” of Hector Berlioz, a highly nonstandard symphony that set classical music on its ear not long after Beethoven had passed away. In it, the composer’s persona takes a bizarre journey through love, hallucinogenic drugs, and finally to the scaffold and the gates of hell.

Who says classical music is dated, boring, and not relevant to current times?

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17