IN: Reviews

BSO: Heartily Enjoying Stravinsky’s Rite

by

Tania León

Tania León’s Stride, composed to honor the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (guaranteeing women’s right to vote), began the Friday afternoon’s BSO subscription concert. This 14-minute orchestral psalm placed various gestures on a slow background of warm, bluesy string harmony, often in radiant harmonics. Its bursts of pentatonic trumpets were answered by thudded chords in divided contrabasses; dancing staccato woodwinds balanced fluttered brass; passages of senza misura divided strings; a recurrent half-diminished seventh chord that I made out as E, G, Bflat, D, seemed to have  an occasional extra note. Andris Nelsons closely gestured meter changes that involved complex time-beating. The short episodes reflected what Robert Kirzinger, in his pre-concert talk, noted in the idea of “stride: one step at a time,” as the fight for women’s suffrage surely proceeded. I didn’t hear the sandpaper blocks, which to me would have signified “shuffle along,” but chimes and woodblocks marked the ending, following a short recap of the earlier trumpets and contrabasses, adding up to a quite attractive piece.

Seong-Jin Cho, pianist from South Korea, may have already had his 30th birthday by the time this report hits the stands, and in his third appearances with the Boston Symphony, he placed his mature command of the keyboard fully on display in Ravel’s famous Concerto for the Left Hand, a popular piece with our orchestra; Kirill Gerstein played it just two years ago. This is one of Ravel’s last compositions, written at about the same time as the even better-known two-handed Concerto in G Major but in a more grandiose manner, in just a single movement of alternating slow and fast episodes. Both works involve a lot of impressionist arpeggios and percussive, martial jazz piano styles. Cho preferred to emphasize the more delicate poetry, with a singing upper melody in the slower sections. A warmly contrasting orchestral melody, with hollow woodwind and solo trombone emphasis, has always reminded me of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter, and Ravel was not immune to Russian influences.

The audience gave Seong-Jin Cho an enthusiastic ovation, and he responded with an encore after first exhibiting his right hand, which earned a laugh from the audience. His take on Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 came across with emotional sensitivity and refinement—four minutes of total concentration.

Seong-Jin Cho (Robert Torres photo)

After the intermission Nelsons focused intently on The Rite of Spring, which I had not heard in Symphony Hall since November 2017. For the very first time first time I witnessed this great 20th-century monument with an abundance of broad smiles on the players’ faces. I have written several times in these pages about the score [HERE] and about different recordings [HERE] so I don’t need to add much here about the complexities that usually cause problems. There were one or two small faults here and there, but in general the players cast aside  99% of the difficulties with ease. (Most notable bobble: the cutoff chord on the third beat of the last measure of Part I – a C-major triad topped with Fsharp and Eflat. The orchestra score has the woodwind chord as a quarter-note; trumpets, trombones, and tubas, ditto; horns, a triplet-eighth; clarinets, violins, and violas in a 16th. All of these are meant to be an abrupt staccato cutoff; but it did sound yesterday as though one of the upper-register component wanted to hold on a little longer. (The piano-four-hands version has a pattern of three triplet eighths at this very instant! No quick cutoff here.) In the famous 8 bars of polymeters at no. 70, the entrance of the Sage, everything clicked admirably, from the melodies in 4 horns against 4 tubas to the percussion battery (timpani, bass drum, tamtam, guero) to the “badly overbalanced” first violin line. Some matters, nevertheless, sounded too loud, as I have pointed out before in some of Nelsons’s encouragements. The 11/4 chord just before the “Glorification” is a partial cluster in the low strings, marked ff sempre, but the four timpani and bass drum, marked f, nevertheless overpowered the strings to the point of no perceptible pitches at all. In the last half of the Sacrificial Dance, all the drums were consistently too loud. Nevertheless the timpanist got a well-deserved bow at curtain call, as did so many others, especially the principal bassoon (three times!). The “five old men” in the bassoons in the “Evocation of Ancestors” should have been distinctly tongued, not slurred. And I never heard the tamtam at all in the “Glorification,” even though I’ve ranted about it often enough.

I have never enjoyed a The Rite of Spring as heartily as this one. In 1957 I listened to the Boston Symphony’s Saturday evening broadcast on WGBH; Monteux, who had led the premiere in 1913, conducted. And with reference to the guero, I still remember how William Pierce read off the list of instruments just before the performance began: “…five timpani, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals, tambourine, tamtam — [puzzled pause], scratcher, and strings.” One who was there told me later that 200 people had walked out, 33 years after the Boston premiere. That was Boston, back then. Yesterday afternoon, the hall was more than 90% full despite some weather.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

5 Comments »

5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Scratcher? I once heard a story that Monteux was dissatisfied with the sound of the guero, and took some time to go out to Woolworth’s with a percussionist to find something better. What they bought was a toy washboard. It is said that this washboard is still in the instrument collection at Symphony Hall.

    Citation needed? OK, here you go: Washboard Music. (1951, Dec 28). Medford Mail Tribune, Medford, Oregon, p. 11. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/article/medford-mail-tribune-washboard-boston-sy/3090871/

    “Boston — (U.P.) — A prosaic washboard is used by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to produce the final flourish of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’ One of the percussion men of the orchestra runs his fingers swiftly across the ridges to create a percussion glissando effect.”

    Comment by Mark Lutton — January 14, 2024 at 10:18 pm

  2. I was a medical student in Boston in 1957 and was at that concert (Sat. eve.) conducted by Monteux, It was a thrill to experience that concert and a very special occasion. Of course I could not discern the level of detail that Prof. DeVoto describes but the thrill of hearing and seeing Monteux conduct the “Rite” has persisted a lifetime and the memory remains a source of pleasure to me, even so many years later.
    Herbert Rakatansky, MD
    Clinical Professor of Medicine, Emeritus
    Brown University
    Providence RI

    Comment by Herbert Rakatansky, MD — January 16, 2024 at 3:20 am

  3. I was quite impressed with Dr. Rakatansky’s comment on the “Rite of Spring” performance. It was insightful and spot on. Although always impressive, the level of detail offered in these concert reviews can at times be somewhat superfluous unless one has a PHD in Musicology. This level of detail may not always be easily understood by your average concertgoer and what Dr. Rakantansky experienced back in 1957 is what matters most. It’s all about what you see, what you hear, and what you experience.

    Comment by David M Grahling — January 16, 2024 at 12:54 pm

  4. As an average concertgoer, I am very grateful for Mark DeVoto’s detailed account. Reliving that marvelous concert with his helpful knowledge of the score is a real treat. We need all perspectives, voices and reactions. And musicologists who go to the trouble of turning us on to intricate details that we would otherwise miss are especially welcome.

    Comment by Ashley — January 16, 2024 at 1:24 pm

  5. In recalling his attendance when he was a medical student in Boston at a performance of “Rite of Spring” conducted by Pierre Monteux in 1957, Dr. Rakatansky remarks that that concert experience “has persisted a lifetime and the memory remains a source of pleasure to me, even so many years later.” How true and how essential it is to cultivate those memories. On a very snowy Friday afternoon, as a sophomore at Penn in 1960, I made my way with a friend to the Academy of Music, where Pierre Monteux, then in his mid-eighties, was scheduled to conduct Brahms’ “Tragic Overture,'” Hindemith’s “Mathis der Mater,” and the Schubert “Great.” Would the concert even take place? Since the snow had kept by far the majority of the regular audience at home, those of us who had braved the elements were warmly invited to come down from the balconies to take seats on the floor. For me, new to concert music, it felt like an initiation, a rite. Monteux appeared, and his Schubert has stayed with me all these years.
    Robert J. Scholnick

    Comment by Robert J. Scholnick — January 18, 2024 at 1:49 pm

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