June 21, 2013

A Model Orchestra for a Masterpiece Rite

San Francisco Symphony
By Jeff Dunn

MTTOliver Wendell Holmes reputedly declared “I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Yes, let's hear it for simplicity, that human longing that motivates such a host of endeavors — including murder and music reviews, if you think about it. Thus, on Friday, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony shed detailed and welcome light on one part of the elephant's hide that is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, namely its simple folk origins. Nevertheless, it was the complexity of the whole, in-your-face beast that impressed me the most. And how MTT and his band rose to the occasion to master it.

We are talking a Major Occasion: the world-wide observance of the Rite's premiere in Paris 100 years ago, May 29, 1913. We are talking about one of WMFT Chicago's “10 pieces that changed the world.” We are talking about the “security blanket” that, according to Louise Levene, “gives comfort to any artist whose work causes outrage or derision; it reassures them that one day they too will be understood.” We are talking about the work that's prompting a plethora of “Rite stuff” and “Rite riot” articles and performances by more than a dozen American symphony orchestras this May and June. And, not unexpectedly, we are talking about massive recording re-releases, such as Decca's 20-disk set of 38 performances by different orchestras, conductors, and soloists — all of this one piece.

Models simple wedding outfit To their immense credit, MTT and his team did not simply put the Rite in a normal program. Other orchestras played it along with Swan Lake or a Rachmaninov concerto. MTT brought in the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, billed as a “living laboratory” of Russian folk traditions based in Moscow. Its 13 actor/singers began the concert with four groups of “Russian Village Wedding Songs” and then joined the Symphony's pianist and percussion section (augmented by three other pianists and two more percussionists) in the 1923 revision of Stravinsky's Les Noces (The Wedding). The Pokrovksy's folk-style renditions carried into their interpretation of Les Noces, the memory of which resonated into the Rite after intermission. Excellently detailed program notes included “Stravinsky's Ear-Stretching, Joy-Giving Legacy” by the late annotator Michael Steinberg, a striking essay on “Stravinsky and Folk Music” by Scott Foglesong, and a 10-page guide to the Les Noces texts.

The result was deep immersion in a mindset of rural social procedures that only quasi-playfully keeps urges of resentment and violence in check between village factions. The shoutings and physical thrusts amongst the bride's and groom's supporters as depicted by the urbanites Pokrovsky were perfectly reflected in the strainingly wide-ranging vocal writing and strident percussiveness of Les Noces. I could not help but think of Stravinsky writing about a wedding while his homeland was undergoing a bloody divorce from its tsar and former ruling classes. Social procedures back home failed, terrifyingly. While a part of me missed the melodic beauty that some highly-trained singers have brought to this composition, the rougher-edged Pokrovsky approach had increased psychological merit. Since theirs was a semi-staged, non-balletic presentation, the extramusical dramatic merits, while considerable, were not at their maximum. That their headset mikes malfunctioned at the outset didn’t help, either.

What was at its maximum was the phenomenal skill of the orchestra in its tour de force rendition of the complexities of The Rite of Spring. All the key parts were heard, I detected no balance problems, MTT’s tempos were spot on, the brass was at their virtuoso best — and the solo chairs were fabulous. Especially memorable were bassoonist Stephen Paulson, who got the whole thing started, and timpanist David Herbert, who, like the departure of Stravinsky from Old Russia, will leave us bereft as he joins the Chicago Symphony next season.

Yes, the Russian folk influence in the Rite was apparent. But the amazing artifice with which Stravinsky transformed his material, the freshness of soundscape that even today puts so many of its imitators into the shade, the violence of its rhythmic complexity that is the most lasting influence in today’s music — all these went far beyond the folk-music and Rimsky-Korsakov parental genes that spawned it. In this altogether superb performance that brought a cheering and whistling audience immediately to its feet, there was no question that this pachyderm will still be admired on its 200th anniversary.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.