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NSO, KenCen to offer ‘Three Ways to Make a Rite (of Spring)’

Written By | Nov 10, 2014

WASHINGTON, November 9, 2014 – The National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center are all-in for Igor Stravinsky this week. In three (count ‘em!) different programs, the NSO and assorted artists will focus on Stravinsky’s precedent-shattering 20th century classical music wakeup call, otherwise known as “Le sacre du printemps,” or “The Rite of Spring” on this side of the Atlantic.

Image of the piano reduction of "Rite of Spring."

Image of the piano reduction of “Rite of Spring.” (Via Wikipedia)

Under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, the NSO’s regular season program for Thursday, November 13 and Saturday November 15 will feature “The Rite of Spring” as the main event. It’s a “hugely exciting” work and a “clear orchestral showpiece,” says Nigel Boon, the NSO’s director for artistic planning.

Also on tap are Mozart’s “Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 314” featuring the orchestra’s principal flute, Aaron Goldman as soloist; and prolific Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach’s complementary “Eterniday: Homage to W. A. Mozart,” scored for bass drum, celesta and strings.

Ms. Auerbach’s compositional skills will also be hiding in plain sight in the Mozart concerto. Mr. Goldman will introduce her trio of newly-composed cadenzas for this work—commissioned by the NSO and Mr. Eschenbach—at these concerts. According to the Kennedy Center web site, these new cadenzas “remain close to Mozart’s style up to a certain point, but occasionally some surprising things may happen…”

On Friday evening, November 14, the NSO is offering a special “Beyond the Score®,” a musical evening that will approach Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” up close and personal.

Led by NSO assistant conductor Ankush Kuman Bahl, the NSO will take “Rite of Spring” vets and newbies alike behind the scenes, incorporating the Chicago Symphony’s popular educational program to explore Stravinsky’s masterwork in all its details, complete with musical excerpts. Nigel Boon, NSO director of artistic planning will narrate.

In the program’s second half, Maestro Eschenbach will conduct a complete performance of the work.

In an additional event, the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music Concerts will present real-life twin sisters and duo-pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton in recital in the Terrace Theater Thursday evening, November 13. They will perform the exciting two-piano, four-hands version of “The Rite of Spring” plus works by Brahms, Debussy and Lutosławski.

Portrait of Serge Diaghilev and His Nanny (1906), Léon Bakst. (Public domain)

Portrait of Serge Diaghilev and His Nanny (1906), Léon Bakst. (Public domain)

Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”: The backstory

The brutal, irregular, primitive rhythms and startling orchestral dissonances that characterize “The Rite of Spring” arguably freed both classical and movie music composers later in the 20th century to explore the use of similarly edgy and nontraditional compositional techniques.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was still a struggling young composer when Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes commissioned him to compose a new ballet based on a Russian folk tale about a magical bird. Debuting in 1910, Stravinsky’s “L’oiseau de feu” (“The Firebird”) was a resounding success.

The composer and Diaghilev’s company scored another win the following year with “Petrushka,” a smaller-scale work based on the mythical misadventures of an archetypal European marionette.

Not surprisingly, Diaghilev approached the composer again requesting a third ballet. They say that three times is the charm. But no one could have foretold how earth-shattering this new work would turn out to be in the musical world.

Drawing, sacrificial dance.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913. (Via Wikipedia)

Based on ideas discussed with Nicholas Roerich, a noted Russian artist and scholar specializing in ancient folk art and rituals, Stravinsky developed a radically different kind of music to depict primitive, pre-historic spring rituals—including human sacrifice—thought to have been a tradition among Eastern Europe’s distant ancestors. The ballet’s second half ends as the chosen sacrificial victim dances to her death in a final frenzy.

Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary lead dancer of the Ballets Russes, promisingly joined the team as choreographer. But his chaotic, often inelegant dance moves, when combined with the production’s decidedly nonstandard costuming and Stravinsky’s ruthlessly pounding, dissonant score ultimately led to “Rite’s” riotous opening night performance in the Parisian Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913.

Joffrey Ballet "Rite" re-creation.

Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 re-creation of the original “Rite,” reprised during the 2013 centennial. (Via Wikipedia)

Various sources have regaled readers with lurid tales of the scandalized, out-of-control ballet audience hurling vegetables and other objects into the orchestra pit and onto the stage before the gendarmes had to be sent in to control the situation. Some of these stories might even be true. But it’s an established fact that “Rite’s” premiere performance went horribly wrong. Big time.

For years thereafter, Stravinsky’s radical score was blamed for the failure of the premiere. But a recent New York Times article by Richard Taruskin puts most of the blame on Nijinsky’s bizarre choreography.

“…it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest dancer in the troupe but a novice choreographer, that offended the Paris public…. Once the whistlers and hooters got going, nobody even heard the music. Most of the reviews paid no attention to Stravinsky beyond naming him as the composer before turning with gusto to the weird antics onstage and the weirder ones in the hall.”

Despite its disastrous premiere, Stravinsky’s revolutionary score gradually came to be recognized as a breakthrough artistic event. In its purely symphonic form, it has since moved beyond its balletic origins, gradually achieving substantial popularity as a key musical landmark of the 20th century.

Closer to our own time, in 1987, the Joffrey Ballet introduced a meticulously researched re-creation of that original 1913 production, featuring a best-efforts approximation of Nijinsky’s lost choreography and even including reproductions of its gaudy, original costuming. The Joffrey revived it again for a 2013 centennial tour.

Hearing to “Rite of Spring” today is clearly a different experience from the one shared by that 1913 opening night audience in Paris. Music that may have sounded insane and undisciplined to Parisian ears that year seems in many respects perfectly acceptable music in 2014, even if it is a bit wild compared to many of the classical repertoire’s more “proper” greatest hits. In music as well as art, it’s always a matter of perspective.

Back to the Future: Stravinsky Week at the Kennedy Center

Nigel Boon offered some insights on how this week’s remarkable Stravinsky event actually came together.

“Generally speaking,” said Mr. Boon, who works with Maestro Eschenbach on planning and scheduling, “we decide the ‘big piece’ for each series concert first. Everything else comes around to support that choice.”

NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. (Pratt, courtesy NSO)

NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. (Pratt, courtesy NSO)

Clearly, “Rite of Spring” is this week’s “big piece.” It’s also one of Maestro Eschenbach’s favorites, notes Mr. Boon. “He loves the piece and finds it extraordinary. It’s like nothing that was ever heard before, and its music could not have been written by any other composer.”

During “Rite of Spring” discussions here, it was noted that the Chicago Symphony had already developed one of its popular “Beyond the Score” programs to focus on the work.

“Beyond the Score” is a trademarked series of educational production packages created by that orchestra in recent years as a way of “showing and telling the audience about a single big piece,” according to Mr. Boon. The NSO has previously brought “Beyond the Score” programs to the Kennedy Center and they are “attracting a good audience.”

Each program, according to Mr. Boon, is put together after extensive research, and features “visuals, music excerpts, actors, narrators—everything necessary to bring each work to life. The material is on a higher level, but it’s certainly not complicated,” he says. But it’s likely a bit advanced for younger family members.

Igor Stravinsky, 1920 sketch by Picasso. (Public domain)

Igor Stravinsky, 1920 sketch by Picasso. (Public domain)

Given the difficulty and level of innovation that characterize this particular score, it was decided to fold the Chicago educational production for “Rite” into this week’s schedule, providing a unique opportunity for new and old listeners alike to delve more deeply into the work’s path-breaking musical concepts.

In addition to the educational portion of the program, Mr. Eschenbach will appear on the podium during Friday evening’s second half to lead the NSO in a complete performance of the work.

To provide some balance for the Stravinsky, it seemed like a good idea to balance the musical bill of fare with a performance of the Mozart concerto featuring the orchestra’s new principle flute, Mr. Goldman.

Having scheduled the concerto, the discussion turned next to the possibility of commissioning a contemporary composer to compose new cadenzas for these performances, and Ms. Auerbach’s name came up. The NSO was already familiar with her work, having performed her “Requiem for Icarus” a few seasons back.

Her involvement “gave us the hook for the completion of this program,” says Mr. Boon.

Given that Mr. Goldman would be performing the Mozart concerto with Ms. Auerbach’s new cadenzas, it seemed only fitting to open each evening’s concerts with her “homage” to Mozart as well.

As a final “Rite of Spring” tribute, after learning of the Naughton sisters’ fluency in the two-piano, four-hands version of “Rite,” the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Series to perform this difficult and infrequently performed piano reduction in a special Terrace Theater recital.

This week’s Stravinsky-centric programming presents an intriguing opportunity for concert goers not only to listen to music regarded as radical and nearly unplayable barely a century ago, but to explore as well its complexity an innovative rhythms and structures to better understand how and why it has influenced so many composers since its riotous debut.

For more details on the NSO’s and the Fortas Series’ “Rite of Spring” concerts and to purchase tickets, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.

NSO ticket prices range from $10 and up, and can also be obtained by visiting the Kennedy Center Box Office, or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

Tickets to the Fortas Series concert program featuring the Naughton sisters performing the duo-piano version of “Rite of Spring” concerts are $36 and are also available for purchase as listed above.

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