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The New York Philharmonic performs Stravinsky's epic 'Rite of Spring'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

Review of New York Philharmonic Concert of 1/16/2016

The New York Philharmonic performs Stravinsky's epic 'Rite of Spring'

Igor Stravinksy

The advent of spring is still two months away.  Fortunately that didn't prevent The New York Philharmonic under the baton of Music Director Alan Gilbert from performing Igor Stravinsky's monumental The Rite of Spring last week.  Stravinsky's epic piece was programmed with compositions by Respighi and Magnus Lindberg.   All three pieces shared an intense expressivity which had the effect of either warming up or shaking up a cold January evening.  

Opening the program was Ottorino Respighi's Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows).  Respighi is of course well known for his tone poems The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome.    Resphigi studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov which perhaps goes a long way in explaining why Respighi's use of the orchestra tends to be colorful, vivid and masterful. (Rimsky-Korsakov's other students included Stravinsky and Prokofiev;  Korsakov's son-in-law taught Shostakovich. Quite a progeny).    

Respighi apparently wrote all four movements of  Church Windows  before adding descriptive titles to each section ("The Flight Into Egypt," "St. Michael the Archangel," "The Matins of St. Clare," and "Pope Gregory the Great").  I thought that the Philharmonic wonderfully caught the lyrical, colorful aspects of the score, with the brass lending an impressive majesty which suggested a cathedral-like setting.   

I was astonished to read in the program that the last time Church Windows was performed by the Philharmonic was in 1933.  This is truly an impressive composition which can wonderfully show off a great orchestra's resources and should be performed much more frequently. 

After the Respighi, the Philharmonic performed Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto No. 2, which was having its U.S. premiere.   Lindberg was a former Composer-in-Residence of the orchestra.   The soloist violinist was Frank Peter Zimmermann.

Prior to performing the violin concerto, Maestro Gilbert had an interesting and often humorous conversation with Lindberg on stage.  I thought that this was an excellent way to introduce the concerto and I hope it will be repeated  when other pieces are performed by contemporary composers.  Modern music can often be (sometimes justifiably)  mystifying to audiences.  To attach a face and voice of a composer with a new composition can make the music much more approachable.  I think the short talk greatly enhanced the audience's enjoyment of the warm,  expressive concerto. 

Lindberg's concerto is in three movements played continuously.  I particularly admired the fact that though a fairly large ensemble was employed,  thanks to the skillful orchestration,  a fine balance was maintained between the solo violinist and ensemble.  I found the concerto generally lyric, buoyant and accessible, though there were times when I wished that statements of the thematic material were a little more pronounced. The piece was written for Zimmermann and he played it with apparent relish and elan. 

The second half of the program was dedicated to a performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, one of the most important (if not the most important) compositions of the 20 th century.   A dance score created in conjunction with choreographer Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, the piece had its premiere in Paris in May of 1913.  Ostensibly describing pagan sacrificial rites associated with the onset of spring,  the score actually has a distinctly “modern” feel to it in both the exciting and dark aspects of that term.    

In its relentless innovativeness The Rite effectively acted as the curtain raiser for modern 20 th century composition.  To paraphrase Dostoyevsky's comment about atheism in The Brothers Karamazov, after The Rite of Spring it really would seem that musically almost anything is possible. 

Although The Rite ostensibly harks back to a pagan era,  the piece  has an eerie prescient quality.  I don't think that it is much of a stretch of the imagination to see the percussive blasts of the piece as musical harbingers of the the actual cannon blasts which were to erupt in Europe slightly over a year after the work's premiere.   While I was listening to the performance, I thought that it would be interesting to overlayer footage of battles of World War I with the most energetic parts of The Rite.  Perhaps this has already been done.  My sense is that the film and music would “complement” each other perfectly. 

Most pieces of music of any length have contrasting tones of atmosphere, from sad to joyful,  heroic to sentimental, etc.    The tone of  The Rite has a consistent feeling of aggression.  Even the relatively quiet moments have a certain arid, alien quality to them, as if one is stuck on a barren Martian landscape with no water or succor in site.   

The whole effect of Rite of Spring creates a sensation that something overwhelming and terrible has or is about to be unleashed.  And yet, for all of its of its original and ingenious use of dissonance and asymmetric rhythmic patterns, there is an easily discernible logic and cohesiveness to the music from the opening solo bassoon line to the last crashing chord some thirty five minutes later.

Maestro Gilbert and the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing the violent, “barbaric” aspects of the score and I admired the precision with which they navigated its rhythmic complexity.   However, sometimes I thought that strikes on the percussion were so loud  that the acoustics of Geffen Hall couldn't properly process the sound, producing something of a distorting effect akin to turning the bass levels of a recording up too high.  

But nonetheless it was an exciting performance, fully attuned to all of the unsettling qualities of Stravinsky's  masterpiece. At the end, Maestro Gilbert held up the score to the  applause of the audience.  Even past its 100 th birthday,  The Rite of Spring still has a fresh ability to astonish and amaze. 

Next week the Philharmonic will be presenting four performances of two other monumental pieces,  Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Bruckner's Sixth Symphony with violinist James Ehnes and conductor Juanjo Mena.  Performance dates are January 27-30.  Never doubt the ability of a great orchestra to warm up a cold winter evening. 

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