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A century later, ‘The Rite of Spring’ remains revolutionary

Visceral, jarring and raw, “The Rite of Spring” sounded like nothing anyone had heard before the half-hour work’s near-riotous debut almost a century ago in Paris. In his book, “First Nights: Five Musical Premieres,” Thomas Forrest Kelly argues that the now-legendary premiere on May 29, 1913, was the most important moment in the history of 20th-century music. “Are there other competing moments?” he writes. “The appearance of [Arnold] Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’? [Claude] Debussy’s ‘Pélleas et Mélisande’?

“Probably nothing else is so clearly a focal point as ‘Le Sacre [du Printemps’]; no one would disagree that this is a semimal piece whose repercussions in the world of music are still being heard today and will continue into the future.”

The classical music world is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary work throughout the 2012-13 season, with the Chicago Symphony showcasing it in five concerts starting Wednesday.

“There are various ways you can draw people’s attention to things,” said Gerard McBurney, artistic programming adviser and creative director of the CSO’s “Beyond the Score” series. “But the birthday of ‘The Rite of Spring’ is a good moment to pause and consider and start arguing about it again. What kind of a piece is it? What is it really?”

The CSO will feature the work Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings as part of an all-Russian lineup that also consists of Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. As a complement to those concerts, the CSO will present two performances of a multimedia “Beyond the Score” program that will explore the history and structure of piece with the help of actors and Russian folk musician Valeriy Yavor.

Conducting all five programs will be international conductor Charles Dutoit, who has led scores of performances of “The Rite of Spring” worldwide and lost none of his admiration for its lasting impact. “It’s extraordinary how still modern this piece is without being shocking, like certain modern things by Schoenberg and others, which are still not really digested by the public and not even some musicians,” he said. “But this piece is now played a lot, and it seems that it creates the same impact on everyone each time.”

Stravinsky’s primal, avant-garde score, with its complex, driving rhythms and bold dissonances, was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the artistic director of the celebrated Ballets Russes. Vaslav Nijinsky created the scandalously primitivistic choreography for the ballet, which is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia.” It evokes a series of prehistoric rituals, including the selection and ultimate execution of a sacrificial virgin.

The 1913 debut sparked some fiery reactions, including this denunciation from Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini: “The choreography is ridiculous, the music sheer cacophony. There is some originality, however, and a certain amount of talent. But taken together, it might be the work of a madman.”

When first developing a “Beyond the Score” program about “The Rite” in 2007, McBurney decided to set aside the brouhaha that surrounded its debut and focus instead on how it came to be. Particularly key was the underappreciated role of Nikolai Roerich, a celebrated Russian writer, painter and philosopher. “It becomes very clear that the roots of ‘The Rite of Spring’ are a very strange mixture of Stravinsky and Roerich,” McBurney said.

For this 100th anniversary reprisal, McBurney has revised and expanded the explanatory first half, incorporating a kind of mini-drama, with two actors who play Stravinsky and Roerich. The second half consists of a complete performance of the ballet score.

“It is true that if you play ‘The Rite of Spring next to the other pieces of music that were being written in that period, Stravinsky seems to have taken a giant leap, but he’s leaping from something,” McBurney said. “If we feel that, if we understand it, then we can look at the miraculousness of this score in a very different way.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

Chicago Sun-Times

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