Le Sacre du printemps (the Rite of Spring)
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay, conductor
Friday, November 30, 2012
For major orchestras, Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps
has become standard fare, but for second and third tier orchestras it is still
a huge challenge, for both technical and financial reasons: for the players,
the rhythms and harmonies are difficult; for managers and boards, the costs for
additional players and extra rehearsal time are not easy to swallow.
The Austin Symphony
is a part-time per service orchestra, which nonetheless manages to play
consistently at a very high level under music director Peter Bay (photo: right). They far exceeded
even their own standards with this week’s performance of Le sacre du printemps.
The evening began
with “Beyond the Score,” a multi-media introduction to the score, originally
prepared for the Chicago Symphony by Gerard McBurney. After intermission we heard
a complete performance of the piece.
Several seasons back,
Austin heard a “Beyond the Score” presentation of Dvorak’s New World Symphony; it was very well received. The audience seemed
to like what they saw and heard on this occasion as well.
In both the Dvorak
and the Stravinsky presentations, McBurney made extensive use of actors to
bring the piece to life. In Le sacre, Rick Rowley – better-known locally as a pianist on the faculty at the
University of Texas – played Stravinsky, and Robert Faires, a well-known Austin
actor and critic, played Nicholas Roerich, the man who conceived the sets and
costumes for the original production of the piece in Paris (1913). McBurney
provided narration, as Rowley and Faires discussed the creation of the new
To McBurney’s (photo: right) credit,
we in the audience learned a great deal about the use of folk tunes – Russian
and Lithuanian – and about Stravinsky’s imitation of Russian folk instruments
in Le sacre. We also got a sense of
the collaboration between composer and set designer. We never saw what was
created, however; that is, costumes, sets, or choreography. This is odd since
McBurney had a giant screen over the orchestra at his disposal and, after all, Le sacre du printemps was conceived as a
ballet - not as a concert piece.
The “Beyond the Score”
series was devised by the Chicago Symphony with McBurney as creative director.
The idea was to “open the door to the symphonic repertoire for first-time
concertgoers as well as to encourage an active, more fulfilling way of listening
for seasoned audiences.” The concept is timely when orchestras everywhere are
struggling to hold their aging audiences and attract new listeners.
“Beyond the Score” makes
use of any media available on the piece presented, including videos, photographs,
recorded examples and live dramatizations with actors. McBurney and the Chicago Symphony deserve enormous credit for bringing these projects into being and for
sharing them with other orchestras.
For Le sacre, McBurney chose to concentrate
on the roots of the music. This emphasis is entirely appropriate since
Stravinsky’s music for this ballet was truly revolutionary, and we can all understand
it better if we analyze its key elements and identify its folk roots. McBurney
handled this part of his project with great skill and undoubtedly helped the
audience prepare for the complete performance of the piece.
Nonetheless, it seems
to me that while McBurney made good use of his giant screen to show us musical
examples, much more could have been done to give us a sense of the costumes,
sets and choreography. McBurney chose to give us dramatizations of
conversations between Stravinsky and Roerich (photo: right), but failed to show us any of
Roerich’s work, a vital part of the collaboration.
The actors read their
lines with conviction, but I was puzzled as to why Rowley (Stravinsky) had a
heavy Russian accent while Roerich (Faires) did not, when both men were, in
From my vantage point
in the first balcony (mezzanine), the images on the giant screen over the
orchestra were washed out. On meeting after the concert, some friends sitting
in the second balcony section expressed their annoyance at having had only a
partial view of the screen; this may have had something to do with the
placement of the screen as far as possible upstage, behind the considerably
The paucity of
visuals and some poor sightlines notwithstanding in the “Beyond the Score” part
of the program, the symphonic performance of Le sacre was
excellent. Maestro Peter Bay was in total command of the intricate rhythms and
inspired the Austin Symphony to give a vivid and dynamic performance.
With the orchestra
enlarged, the sound emanating from the stage had presence and impact. As
required by the score, there were eight French horns, which Maestro Bay placed
against the back wall. These projected an enormous sound, especially when in
the "Ritual of the Ancients" they were required to play fff with the bells of their instruments in the air (Le pavillon en l’air). In the final
section of the piece, scored for constantly changing meters, all the musicians in
the orchestra showed enormous concentration and virtuosity.
Le sacre du printemps has
been reconstructed and staged in our time by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth
Archer using some of Nicholas Roerich’s original costume and set designs. You
can see it for yourself in a performance by the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet
conducted by Valery Gergiev (BelAir Classiques DVD BAC041).
There is also a
fascinating performance of the score by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by
Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) presented on television as part of the orchestra’s
“Keeping Score” series; it brilliantly combines performance; commentary on the
choreography by MTT, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer; the printed score for
viewers to follow; and pictures of Roerich’s sets and costumes. Excerpts are
available at www.keepingscore.org.
For more on the work of Hodson and Archer visit their website at www.hodsonarcher.com. For more on
Roerich visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York or the website www.roerich.org.
Labels: Austin Symphony Orchestra, Beyond the Score, Concert_Review, klassinen musiikki, klassische Musik, musica classica, musique classique, Peter Bay, Stravinsky, クラシック音楽, 古典音乐, 古典音樂