The Rite of Spring Beyond the Riot

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Next year, on May 29, 2013, it will have been 100 years since the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring. Arts organizations around the country, and in Austin, are celebrating the occasion with special programming.

In February you’ll be able to see Ballet Austin perform the work with The Austin Symphony and choreography by Stephen Mills. In March, visiting Chicago ballet company The Joffrey Ballet will bring the work with original choreography by Nijinsky to Bass Concert Hall and in April Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard brings a new look at The Rite of Spring in her production The Oracle.

But perhaps the most in-depth look at the centenarian composition comes this weekend when The Austin Symphony presents Beyond the Score: The Rite of Spring. (Friday and Saturday)

These multimedia explorations, created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, delve into the history of the work with live actors, big screen illustrations and musical excerpts performed by the orchestra. After intermission, you’ll hear the The Rite of Spring with new ears.

“Our lives are short,” writes Gerard McBurney, the creative brain behind Beyond the Score. “We have only so many years to grasp culture. Grasping culture by definition means grasping the whole picture, understanding context and the changing flow of meaning through history and even before history. Every human being should try to understand the context… Not only of works of art, but of language, politics, belief systems, science…”

McBurney came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2006 after working for many years in his native England as composer, arranger, broadcaster, teacher and writer. He’s an expert in Russian music, but even so, McBurney still found new perspectives during his research for The Rite of Spring.

“I was deeply affected by Richard Taruskin’s famous chapter on this work in his magisterial blockbuster “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions.” This opened up the whole archaeology of the cultural context for me,” McBurney writes. “I was staggered by studying the famous sketchbook (published in facsimile in—I  think—the 1960s). It made me understand in a completely different way how he wrote this piece. Every page of this sketchbook has something new to tell us on this matter.”

“I was deeply affected by reading the original writings of Nikolai Roerich [stage designs and costumes] and understanding where his ideas came from – which are the basis of The Rite of Spring,” he continues. “And I was swept away by the folk music parallels. Discovering an early recording of birch bark horns (rozhki) or listening to certain field recordings of khorovods, opened up a whole new path into Stravinsky’s imagination.”

But what about the famous riot? We know music has the power to set historical events in motion. The fairly unknown opera La muette de Portici set off the Belgian Revolution. But the unrest surrounding The Rite of Spring is a different story.

“The unrest over the Sacre had nothing to do with the music and everything to do with the choreography and the aesthetic of Roerich’s design and costumes,” writes McBurney. “The so-called riot is irrelevant to the story of Stravinsky’s score. It belongs to reception history which has nothing to do with what a composer puts in to a composition but only with what comes out of it.”

Catch Beyond the Score this Friday, November 30 or Saturday, December 1 at The Long Center.


Editor’s note: Beyond the Score was launched when I had just started working for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In fact, the program with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben was my very first concert with the CSO. And I vividly remember the audience member yelling out “This is all propaganda! Long Live the Fifth International!” and storming out during an exploration of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. In 2007, I saw the first Beyond the Score iteration of The Rite of Spring with the CSO and Esa-Pekka Salonen. They’re powerful programs, and I’ve been a fan ever since the first one. — Marc van Bree

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