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“Rites” of Passage

Celebrating A 100 Years of Le Sacre du Printemps

The Joffrey Ballet “Rite of Spring”, Dance at the Music Center, February 2013
4handsLA, Le Sacre du Printemps, Jacaranda: Thresholds, February 2013 —

Stravinsky_1While other sixteen year olds sought summer employment behind the counter of MickeyD’s or bagging at the local Safeway, I got lucky and was hired as a backstage “runner” at the Hollywood Bowl, the world famous outdoor amphitheater in the foothills of Los Angeles, where music concerts—classical, pop, jazz and rock—have brightened the night sky above since 1922.  As a “runner” and on stand-by for every show, I was assigned to the backstage area.  My close access to the dressing rooms allowed me the chance to meet some of the greatest performers of the 20th Century.  Conversing with (and getting  programs signed by)  Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Rudolf Nureyev, Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Burton, The Royal Ballet’s Svetlana Beriosova, Van Cliburn, Count Basie and many others was  one reason to keep  this unique job for six more seasons.

During my second summer at the Bowl, Igor Stravinsky, the era’s most famous living composer, was scheduled to conduct. On the day of his concert in September, it was exciting to watch this legendary figure rehearse with the orchestra. He needed some assistance walking to the podium but exhibited surprising strength in his hands and arms as they shaped the sound. He was cordial with the musicians, at times correcting a note or phrase. That evening, I went backstage with a miniature score of his brilliant ballet, The Rite of Spring, but was firmly rebuffed by his manager.  She said: “Mr. Stravinsky meets no one and will not be signing autographs”. (The Bowl’s stage manager, overhearing the exchange, interceded; later that night, he returned my little score and it was exhilarating to see Stravinsky’s signature on the inside cover.)

PetrouskaScore_800L.A.’s culture mavens finally began to wake up: Stravinsky was 84 years old, had lived in the city for three decades and was long overdue for high civic honors. He was invited to conduct at the Bowl once more, this time to open the 1966 season, on July 5th. Those of us attending rehearsal watched him lead the orchestra through the sparkling suite from his Petrushka ballet.  That evening, again determined to meet Stravinsky, I brought another miniature score and prior to the concert asked his aide and assistant, Robert Craft, for help. “I think we can arrange that”, he said. “Come with me”.  I followed him into the main dressing room and there was the old man–small, seated  in a chair in a white dinner jacket,  napping. Craft spoke to him quietly in French; Stravinsky looked up at me, smiled, and we shook hands.  “Maestro, it’s a great honor to meet you.  Would you please sign this for me?” Mumbling a pleasantry, he took the score (and my Pentel) and carefully wrote his last name under his printed name on the cover of Petrushka. But then: cursing! In Russian.  Followed by Stravinsky scribbling ink over the publisher’s name on the bottom of the page.  Craft swiftly, calmly, removed the score, the Pentel and me from the room as Stravinsky picked up his drink, muttering to himself. “Years ago, there was a copyright issue with that publishing house”, said Craft, explaining the composer’s mild outburst. “He’s still mad about it.” Aside from the mild drama, meeting Igor Stravinsky remains an unforgettable moment.

In his long, productive life, Stravinsky composed many great works—chamber music, concerti, operas and, notably, at the start of his career, ballet scores.  Vital to this early output was the man who helped launch him into world-wide fame at the age of 31—Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev commissioned the very best: Ravel, Satie, Debussy, Poulenc and Prokofiev wrote music; Cocteau, Picasso, Bakst and Bonnard designed costumes and backdrops; Massine, Nijinsky, Fokine, Pavlova and Balanchine danced as well as choreographed. In this company overflowing with important artists, Stravinsky was a central figure —from 1909, when he was first engaged to write a score for Firebird until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Diaghilev admired Stravinsky’s intelligence and skill as a composer and for their shared desire to bring the music and dance of Russia to the rest of the world. The success in Paris of Firebird in 1910 and Petrushka in 1911—both based on Russian themes—encouraged Stravinsky to continue writing music for a ballet he envisioned.  “I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual”, he later said, “in which a chosen sacrificial virgin dances herself to death”.  Diaghilev, definitely intrigued, decided his lover, the brilliant but mentally disturbed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, would create the choreography. After an unheard-of 120 rehearsals—for the dancers to learn Nijinsky’s extremely odd steps and movements, as well as the difficult rhythms in Stravinsky’s score—the result was The Rite of Spring, which premiered on May 29, 1913.

In celebration of the 100th birthday of the ballet and its once-misunderstood score—long-since acknowledged as one of the most beautiful masterpieces of the century—the music world is taking a comprehensive look back at the “The Rite”. Los Angeles’s Dance at the Music Center and its Pacific Coast neighbor, Jacaranda, both recently hosted performances of The Rite of Spring in two unique, rarely-seen, rarely-heard versions, both of which were truly rewarding to experience.

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In early February, The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, formerly the resident dance company in Los Angeles (1982-1992), again graced the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  Ballet fans were treated to the painstaking 1987 reconstruction of “The Rite of Spring”—with the original Nijinsky choreography—which had  been  performed here only six times during the company’s residency and three times in February.  (The recent performances marked the launch of the Music Center’s own nine-month birthday celebration: “LA’s Rite: Stravinsky, Innovation and Dance”.)  It is a shame that relatively few people saw the magical result of a decade’s focused work. Dance scholar Millicent Hodson and her art historian husband Kenneth Archer combed old letters, biographies of long-dead dancers, museums that had bits of costumes from “Rite” and Stravinsky’s hand-written notes on the margins of the ballet’s original score.  “I considered every scrap of information I found so valuable that I didn’t want to let go of anything”, said Hodson in a 1987 interview. “I have evidence of some sort for everything I’ve used” in recreating Nijinsky’s radical dance steps.

The re-done “Rite” is exotic, dazzling to watch, as if a huge story book has opened and the illustrated pages are springing to life.  The corps de ballet appears on stage in Kenneth Archer’s curious, brightly-colored costumes (after the originals, along with the décor, by Nicholas Roerich).  The clothing and jagged, repeated dance steps initially suggested Aztec rituals to my eyes.  Over 40 dancers are used in the 36-minute, two-scene ballet. A few figures are seated on the sides watching groups of 6-8 dancers grouping in small circles.  An  Old Woman (Joffrey’s athletic Lynette Edwards) darts and hops around the stage, striking the ground with her stick. This first section is called “The Adoration of the Earth” and Stravinsky’s score  begins with quiet soothing  bassoon notes. But the music soon explodes in bursts of sound, torrents of rhythms and counter-rhythms—the clash of nature, spring violently awakening. It is exhilarating to see and hear.

The second section is “The Sacrifice”, during which dozens of Young Maidens, with repetitive, uncomfortable-looking movements, create a wide circle that slowly snakes around the stage. The scene pulses forward with Stravinsky’s rich, evocative orchestrations hinting at something sinister. Eventually The Chosen One, (a  memorable Joanna Wozniak),  stumbles and momentarily falls from the circle. She is watched by The Ancestors who wear spooky bearskins; they know—and so do we—that she will clearly be sacrificed to the sun god.  She jumps in place, over 100 times. The score  builds to a crescendo, stops for an exquisite “breath” of music, then crashes with the final chord as The Chosen One dies.

The Joffrey and the reconscruction team have brought to life an undoubtedly important piece of cultural history.  There has been so much written in the past century about the reception of this ballet, its score and the original, raucous premiere—one critic called it “The Massacre of Spring”—that it is refreshing to see it with one’s own eyes.  I’ve listened to Stravinsky’s score, live and recorded, hundreds of times and love it.  But the sounds almost takes a back seat to the powerful, unusual sights we SEE on stage in this rendition.

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Three weeks later, an outstanding, varied program called “Thresholds—The Scandals of 1912-1913” was presented at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, a block from the beach on a windy night.  Jacaranda, the producer of this event and other live concerts, is the creation of two remarkable men: artistic director, Patrick Scott, and music director, Mark Alan Hilt.  They can hardly be praised enough for their creative artistic choices, the musicians they rounded up, the extraordinary program notes (written by Scott) and the airy space in which the performance was held. Sitting in comfortably-cushioned pews, seeing moonlight peek through modern stained-glass windows and listening to chamber music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg seemed almost sinfully good!  The finale of the evening was presented by two very talented pianists, Steven Vanhauwaert and Danny Holt, known as 4handsLA. They performed the devilishly difficult, duo-piano version of “Rite of Spring” and it was breath-taking to watch the adroit athletics required: two tall, young men, on one piano bench, reaching over and under each other’s arms to perform the 35 minute piece.  Their crisp rendition earned a standing ovation from the full house.

Here are the opening sentences, penned by Danny Holt, in their CD’s notes:  “One hundred years ago in Paris, the musical world was rocked by the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”).  The near riot at the 1913 premiere at the Champs-Elysee Theater is now the stuff of legend.  It is perhaps the most influential piece of classical  music of the century, yet even now that it is considered a ‘classic’ it can still sound incredibly fresh and vital.”  Stravinsky wrote “Rite” at a piano and played it for Diaghilev and others prior to the orchestration.  It got some interesting responses.  Pierre Monteux, who would later conduct the infamous premiere, initially reported that he wanted to run out of the room when he heard Stravinsky play it. Danny Holt writes about “what is surely every Stravinsky aficionado’s time-travel dream”—to have been in Paris in June, 1912, when the composer and Debussy sat side by side and played the four-hand version for one of the French critics.  (Stravinsky writes elsewhere that Debussy played his part calmly and was unperturbed by its new-ness.)  Vanhauwaert and Holt “borrow liberally” from several different versions of the score—one pianist, two pianists at one piano, two pianists at two pianos and even some of the orchestrated recordings by the composer who, throughout his life,  was not averse  to re-thinking or re-writing parts of his scores.

There are clear differences, some of them subtle, in the piano and orchestral renditions of “Rite”. One can hear the bare “bones” of the music when it’s played on piano, without the overwhelming instrumental sounds in the full score. Stravinsky was one of the greatest orchestrators of the century and his ballet is full of exquisite shadings. But played on 88 keys—even by two persons—some passages are very quiet and lovely, reminiscent of the easy, simple tunes Stravinsky wrote to play with his children.  Even the Russian melodies and folk tunes seem more noticeable on the piano. In louder passages, it is impossible to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument and it definitely gets banged a bit. To this listener’s ears, the only downside of any piano version of The Rite of Spring is that repetitions of certain passages can sound, well, repetitious. The range of “tools” in a full orchestra can give more body to phrases played over and over. But even if NO sounds were audible, to watch the two-member 4handsLA tackle this monument of music is to see a ballet of bodies and fingers working in perfect unison to spectacular ends.

Some last thoughts about the Joffrey presentation: their program notes were rather weak, especially considering the notoriety of The Rite of Spring. The dance company remains one of the great ones and is sorely missed in Los Angeles. Finally, kudos to the orchestra (made up of local musicians) which rendered the complex music admirably. It was conducted by the Joffrey’s musical director, Scott Speck.  I could barely see Mr. Speck or the musicians in the pit from my seats in the lower balcony. But the conductor’s shadow loomed large on the Pavilion’s walls when the stage lights were, at times, dark. It recalled Stravinsky conducting at the Hollywood Bowl and I thought his spirit would certainly be pleased to see and hear his creation come to life again.

 

Comments

  1. Al Smith says:

    Great information, well researched. Informative,witty and kept me reading.
    I love Stravinsky and feel like I got to know him personally.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. Donna Vaccarino says:

    Sean —

    Very nice histoire ….
    I was at the concert in February at the Music Center –
    Indeed, it produced gooseflesh – visually and aurally.

    Thanks for the 4 hand ending …

    Loved the article —

    dv

  3. judy slosser says:

    A great piece with history, both his and yours. Thankyou. Would love to hear more about those backstage days….

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