Posts Tagged ‘The Rite of Spring’

I Love Youth Orchestras

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark


Why? The kids aren’t jaded. No repertoire is too daunting. Their enthusiasm nearly always makes up for any momentary technical shortcoming. One skips concerts at Juilliard at his or her peril and often encounters first-rate conductors that the Philharmonic has neglected. Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute just announced a new summer training residency for students from 42 states. Beginning in late June, they will train at Purchase College (N.Y.) and be conducted in their first concerts by Valery Gergiev, with Joshua Bell as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and a new work by American composer Sean Shepherd complete the program, to be performed at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, and in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London (dates tba).

The ensemble’s name, “National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America,” reminds me of a thrilling concert I heard in London in 1977 by the National Youth Orchestra of Britain. Pierre Boulez conducted one of his signature programs: Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; Berg, Violin Concerto, with Itzhak Perlman as soloist; Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. Afterwards, he couldn’t contain his excitement at having conducted The Rite with 146 players. I counted 16 double basses and equivalent numbers in the other string bodies in MUSPAC.

The Berg boasted large orchestral forces as well, but with Boulez’s impeccable ear Perlman soared effortlessly throughout. I had heard Boulez conduct the concerto twice before in concert as well as on record twice, and in each case he downplayed the Viennese dance rhythms in the first movement – but not with Perlman. I saw the violinist at the Aspen Music Festival later that year and asked him how he had gotten Boulez to loosen up. With typical Perlmanian cheer he flipped his right arm in the air dramatically, saying with a grin, “I said, Pierre – dance!”

Some readers may find it odd for me to be essentially reviewing a 36-year-old concert performance, but I just wanted to recall how satisfying a student performance can be. Those British Youths roared through Boulez’s interpretation of The Rite with far more fire than in either of his Cleveland recordings or a later London Symphony performance at Carnegie. I heard several concerts during that three-week stay, but damned if I can remember any of the others.

The critics raved, cluelessly expressing astonishment that the young players were so adept in such “difficult” music – seemingly unaware that the complex rhythms and dissonant harmonies were second nature to their generation. I would like to look forward to the National Youths of the U.S., but for some reason they won’t be playing in New York, just rehearsing in Westchester. Maybe next year.

Chicago’s Legendary Dale Clevenger to Retire

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony begins with a trudging funeral march before bursting out into a wild allegro that climaxes as six French horns whoop up the scale. For over 43 years that rip-roaring moment in a Carnegie Hall performance on January 9, 1970, with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti, has remained vividly in my mind. For years thereafter their concerts would be the toughest ticket in town, and at the end of this season, the man leading the horn charge will retire. Dale Clevenger will have been the Chicago Symphony’s principal horn player for 47 years when he moves on to teach at Indiana University. His was a level of artistry I’ll never forget.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/11 Carnegie Hall. Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Warren Jones, piano. James Legg: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Barber: Three Songs, Op. 3. American Songbook classics by Ray Henderson, Cole Porter, Edward Confrey, and Irving Berlin.

3/14 Carnegie Hall at 7:00. Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Patrick Summers; Renée Fleming (Blanche), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Stanley), Anthony Dean Griffey (Mitch), Jane Bunnell (Eunice), Andrew Bidlack (Young Collector), and Dominic Armstrong (Steve). Semi-staged performance directed by Brad Dalton. André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire.

New York Rites

Friday, September 21st, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

In Berlin, where contemporary music thrives from the Philharmonie to off spaces, it is a widespread perception that New York’s mainstream institutions are afraid to program anything past Stravinsky. A look at Alan Gilbert’s recent undertakings with the New York Philharmonic, notably in a hugely successful “360” concert of Mozart, Stockhausen, Boulez and Ives in June that exploited the full space of Park Avenue Armory and was streamed live on, reveals the idea to be a fallacy. Yet it is ironic that the orchestra’s new season has kicked off with a tribute to Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The concert is only the first of many events that will commemorate the centenary of Stravinsky’s ballet, which falls on May 29 of next year.

As with many works that have shaped the canon, the work was a scandal upon its Paris premiere. Choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky reportedly set off physical fights in the audience, perhaps a response to the primitive energy that Stravinsky’s music launched onstage—a far cry from the cultivated elegance high society expected to encounter on the Champs-Elysées. Le Sacre has since become one of the most widely recorded and well-known 20th-century works. Even if it doesn’t feel monumental, in the right hands, it is still hard to resist the score’s raw power.

Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic, seen at Avery Fisher Hall on September 19, made a strong account for venerating Stravinsky, investing ripping strings and grinding rhythms with the animalistic vigor that turns this music into a pagan feast. The painterly dissonances of “The Sacrifice” emerged with ethereal mystery, while the players invested the metallic, stabbing attacks of the final “Sacrificial Dance” with unrepressed drive. The delicate, overlapping wind solos of the opening “Adoration of the Earth” emerged with unpretentious clarity before ceding to the mechanical churning of the “Augurs of the Spring” that effectively wipes the unconscious of its need for soothing classical idioms.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, performed with Leif Ove Andsnes, received a less unified, persuasive interpretation. Andsnes could not quite match the heat of the Philharmonic in the opening Allegro, although his clean, incisive pianissimi nearly redeemed the performance. He and Gilbert communicated effortlessly, and yet the emotional arc from inner torment to Mozartean bitter-sweetness at times lacked conviction. The inner Largo movement felt a bit studied despite the orchestra’s sensitive phrasing, while the players’ tempered use of bombast was well suited to the final Rondo in its stormy pursuit of light-heartedness. Andsnes brought a natural, although not terribly spontaneous, playfulness to his final solo passages.

Opening the program was Kurtag’s …quasi una fantasia…for Piano and Groups of Instruments, an approximately 10-minute work that calls for the distribution of instrument clusters around the performance space while the pianist (Andnes) remains onstage in pseudo-concerto style. The rustling percussion and sparse descending piano melodies that open the piece would have been even stronger with the lights dimmed, but even more importantly than visual aesthetics, Avery Fisher Hall did not provide ideal acoustics. The snare drums behind me at one point overwhelmed the timpani onstage. Gilbert nevertheless coordinated the work with care, allowing sensuous sighing melodies to linger as strongly as the battery of percussion.

Although the piece is not tailor made for Avery Fisher Hall, Gilbert is making a concerted effort to seduce his audience base into what many listeners would consider unusual repertoire, and one hopes that he will succeed. It takes vision, charisma and daring but sound artistic choices to guide an orchestra through the current age of economic uncertainty and cultural levelling. And if Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can teach us anything, it is that challenging the status quo is sometimes the only way to make artistic progress. As I descended into the subway after the concert, the flute melody from the opening “Adoration of the Earth” hovered mystically. It was of course just a busking musician. Even if New York does not meet the expectations of more academically-minded new music connoisseurs, one can´t deny its magic.