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Stravinsky’s Rite Provides Post-bombing Catharsis


A packed Jordan Hall erupted in spontaneous shouting and an extended ovation Wednesday night at the climax of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as performed by the NEC Philharmonia. The audience clearly felt a rush of post-bombing catharsis after Stravinsky’s historic and bone-rattling portrayal of the coming of spring.  The student musicians honored popular conductor Hugh Wolff with multiple rounds of foot-stomping.

The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Paris premiere of The Rite, and the orchestra worked around police controls to find rehearsal time and prepare this highly disciplined, polished performance. Adding to the pleasure was the sheer joy of the audience, which needed a clean break from the tensions of the April 15th bombing. Last night they got it.

Student-dominated audiences always bring an element of zest to an evening of music performed by their peers, creating emotional electricity absent from more stuffy venues. The New England Conservatory makes this happen to perfection.

The less-familiar exotic ballet of The Rite of course adds greatly to the pleasure of this piece but the music is more than able to stand on its own. Wolff tackled it confidently and never wavered as he brought off some of the repertoire’s most complex rhythms and dynamics. Stravinsky keeps the listener off balance by constant changes of time signature, at points switching bar by bar. Oom-pah inverts to a pah-oom, then returns to oom-pah. Odd time signatures and their quicksilver changes can test the most seasoned professionals.

The other challenge of this piece is maintaining the balance of powerful percussion and brass blasts with Stravinsky’s lush and haunting melodies.  Wolff was attentive to this danger and Jordan Hall’s acoustics kept all voices easily audible. Prior to the inaugural performance in Paris in 1913, conductor Pierre Monteux appealed to Stravinsky in rehearsal to rescue passages that were drowned by the percussive power of the orchestra. Stravinsky obliged, and in fact continued tinkering with The Rite for 30 years.

The Philharmonia celebrated the coming of Spring with two other sharply rendered pieces in the first part of the program. Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, titled Spring, was a lyrical evocation of the season and his love for his recently wed great love, Clara Schumann. This was followed by a cheerful reading of Borodin’s“Polov’tsian Dances” from his opera Prince Igor.

Intentionally or not, these more traditional romantic pieces seemed to postpone the visceral release sought by the audience. The Stravinsky then arrived with mounting tension after the intermission. The audience held its breath as the high-pitched bassoon quietly set the tone, soon to turn into chopping, pounding rhythms that the audience knew were coming.

Something close to controlled pandemonium follows, a musical depiction of an imaginary pagan Russian tribe’s sacrifice of a maiden to the gods. In the ballet, she dances herself to death.

This theme and its primitive choreography set traditionalists hooting at the premiere while the avant-garde cheered. The well-known riot that ensued is best portrayed in the recent film Coco and Igor.

Stravinsky said some of this material came to him in a dream. He worked with Russian designer Roerich to complete the theme. But musically, as Wolff wrote in his program notes, “No one was prepared for the giant leap forward of The Rite.” Indeed the piece did not immediately find its place in the repertoire. But within a few years it was recognized as a historic break with romantic tradition and a new era of daring in serious music had dawned.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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