Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Riots, and Booing as a Permissible Response

Guest Blogger: Adam Stern, Conductor of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 3 / Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Benaroya Hall, Seattle on June 3, 2017 at 2pm

Igor Stravinsky would have been thirty or thirty-one from the time that he conceived The Rite of Spring to the time he finished writing it.  It was the third of three ballets that he wrote for the Ballet Russe company under the artistic direction of Sergei Diaghilev. The first was The Firebird, which catapulted him from obscurity to instant fame, and this was followed by the very successful Petrouchka, which was in turn followed by The Rite of Spring, which caused the most famous opening night riot of any piece in classical music history.

The piece broke what people considered all of the extant rules--especially of what rhythm was, and of what a symphony orchestra could do. As some people observed, The Rite of Spring sometimes turns the entire orchestra into a vast percussion instrument. There's this one measure that the orchestra loves to play, where virtually everybody is just repeating the same note eleven times, but it's this massive discord: Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham! It's like the whole orchestra's a big drum, and it's tremendous fun!

But this constant rhythmic asymmetry, and what were perceived as these yawping dissonances, and the unique ways that he deployed the orchestra, coupled of course with the fact that the choreography was considered quite revolutionary--apparently, within a few minutes there were hisses and boos and laughter and catcalls, and it just continued to erupt. There were people in the audience who genuinely liked it. Maurice Ravel was there, trying to get people around him to shut the heck up because he really wanted to listen. He thought Stravinsky was a genius. So there certainly were points of view on both sides.

Stravinsky was enraged, of course, by the riot that accompanied The Rite of Spring. He said, "This was my musical child. I loved it. It had come so naturally to me. I didn't understand why everybody else didn't get it." He just got up out of his seat and said, "Go to hell!" to all the people around him, and stomped out of the the theatre.

I don't know that that kind of reaction is necessarily going to happen very often anymore, if at all. The whole face of classical music has changed. And now, if you'll forgive me for ascending my soapbox: over the last several decades, with the withdrawal of so many music programs from schools--I don't want to say that we've become an unmusical culture, but music does not come as naturally to us as it used to. And I may be be making a blanket statement here, but I think that today a lot of audiences for symphony concerts have this mindset of: Well, if the orchestra is playing it, it's got to be good, so if I don't like or get it, it's my fault.

When Gerard Schwarz was conductor of the Seattle Symphony, I went to every concert that he did. He did a very healthy amount of new music, of world and local premieres. And in all those years, I can remember only one concert where the piece got booed. One! Now, I don't think people should disrupt performances. I don't think it's proper to interrupt the concentration of those who might be enjoying it. But to not applaud or to boo, I think if you're not ostentatious about it, is a perfectly admissible reaction!

I myself once ferociously booed a concert in Los Angeles. The woman I was with, who had never seen that side of me before, was incredibly embarrassed! I shouldn't name names, but it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under a very famous guest conductor whose work I didn't know, so I went in hoping that I would love it, expecting to love it. He ended the concert with one of my favorite pieces in the literature, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a piece I've known since I was a child. I know it fairly intimately; I know all of its ins and outs. This is one of those conductors--he's still with us--who essentially said, I don't care if Rachmaninov said, stay in tempo. I want to slow down here! I want to lean on this note! This performance is about me, and how I feel about the piece! And he just took that piece and stretched it, and mauled it, and did all sorts of what I thought were incredibly offensive things in the putative name of expression. I held on until the last bar, and then I let forth this "BOO!" My poor date said she wanted to move several rows away!

After I'd calmed down a little bit she said, "Look, I'm a novice. What was it that got you so upset? Because it sounded fine to me." I said, "Okay. Imagine, if you will, that Shakespeare is sacred to you. That every word he wrote is like a religion to you. It is understood that when an actor undertakes a part, of course he or she is going to bring to it their sensibility, their rhythm, their natural conception of speech based on how they interpret these lines. The director of course will have his or her input. But it's assumed that one person may go:

To be, or not to be. That is the question...

Or another may be more tense:

To be or not to be, that is the question!

Or another may be more languid:

To be...or not to the question.

But these are all legitimate takes on these words. So I said to this woman, "Now imagine that you've come to a performance of this play that you love, and somebody goes:


That is what he just did to that piece."

And she said, "Okay, now I understand."

Regarding Stravinsky's initial efforts as a composer--and I felt a little guilty because I don't like dissing my hero--but when I wrote the program notes for this concert, I mentioned his Opus 1, the Symphony in E-flat Major.  I've played it for people who were very musically knowledgeable who were shocked to discover that it was Stravinsky! It sounds like Glazunov on a particularly boring day. It's this very dutiful, four-movement Russian romantic symphony that goes through all the right motions, and really doesn't do very much. I mean it's pretty. it's listenable. It wouldn't offend anybody.  But it's certainly not the striking Stravinsky that we know from when he hit his stride in The Firebird.