The “Rite” and riot of Stravinsky

 

Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece is the centerpiece of a Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra concert. 

By Andrew Chow '14

Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking orchestral piece Rite of Springhad a rocky start when it was first performed in Paris in 1913. The bold and dissonant composition provoked so many hisses and yells from the shocked audience that the ballet dancers onstage could barely hear the orchestra beneath them.

One-hundred years later, Thomas Kelly, best known for his “First Nights” course through Harvard’s music department, hopes to recreate the near-riotous atmosphere during the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra performance of the iconic work at 8 p.m.  Friday, October 4,2013, at Sanders Theatre. “How loud do you have to shout to drown out The Rite of Spring? I want to try it. I’m going to ask the audience to scream,” Kelly says mischievously. Kelly will introduce the piece with a talk about its history and test his audience’s yelling abilities. Then he’ll turn it over to HRO director Federico Cortese, who will lead the orchestra through The Rite of Spring and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Cortese has conducted Stravinsky’s masterpiece previously with two orchestras, and feels it is important for the HRO to tackle the piece even without the special anniversary. “It is one of the great pillars of 20th century culture and art,” Cortese says. The orchestra will perform a slight reduction of the composition but still play every note, meaning individual musicians will play parts originally intended for two or three musicians.

The orchestra faces quite a challenge in playing such an ambitious and unorthodox work. Luke Fieweger ’16, the bassoonist who will play the initially-horrific, now-revered opening solo, understands the weight in performing the work, for better and for worse. “The solo is a mix of being fun and horrifying,” Fieweger says. “But in a purely selfish way, it’s great to be able to single-handedly start such a monumental piece.”

The Rite of Spring and Prelude were placed together for both the contrasts and similarities. While the harmonic frameworks of the pieces are varied, both Debussy and Stravinsky led an era and city in pushing boundaries. “Debussy goes for an ambiguous atmosphere, whereas Stravinsky is brutally clear and in your face,” Cortese says. “But the two pieces define the evolution of the avant-garde in France around the turn of the century.”

Cortese is perhaps less keen on inciting a riot than Kelly, but he still hopes that the music will be very affecting to anyone who shows up. “I want to make it sound relevant, and accurate, and alive,” Cortese says.