The Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons, presented its final performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” on Friday.
“The Rite of Spring,” or “Le Sacre du printemps” in its original French, was composed by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and premiered in Paris in 1913 at Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company. “The Rite of Spring” was Stravinsky’s third score written for the company, following “The Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu)” (1910) and “Petrushka” (1911).
The piece was inspired by a fleeting vision Stravinsky had of a young girl dancing herself to death in a pagan Russian ritual as spring arrived. For Stravinsky, the coming of spring was a violent occurrence, as he remembered the noise of St. Petersburg’s ice cracking and reverberating throughout the city.
The score for the ballet is split into two parts with intermediate titles — “Part I: The Adoration of the Earth” and “Part 2: The Sacrifice” — and draws heavily on folk music twisted through rhythmic manipulation and dissonance into something completely new. First performed by the BSO in 1924, January marks the 100th anniversary of the company’s first performance of “The Rite of Spring.”
Before attending this concert performance of “The Rite of Spring,” I was originally against the concept of performing music written for a ballet in a concert setting. Although “The Rite of Spring” has frequently been performed in a concert setting since its inception, to me, it always felt like watching a movie with only the sound. Sure, you still get something out of it, but the screenwriter wrote the script with the expectation that there would be visuals and movement accompanying what was being said.
In the same way, “The Rite of Spring” was specifically commissioned by the Ballets Russes as music to accompany dance. Dance and music came to conception together; in fact, rather than treating the composition and choreography as two separate steps, during the rehearsals, both Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky were present. When the visuals and movement are removed, the music becomes much more abstract.
It would be one thing to present a concert performance of the Ballets Russes production “Scheherazade” (1910) — the music for this ballet was selected from the pre-existing Rimsky-Korsakov symphonic suite of the same name. In fact, this music was written to another abstract story, and then the Ballets Russes used their own version of the frame tale “One Thousand and One Nights.” “The Rite of Spring,” however, was composed with the final ballet in mind, in collaboration with the choreography of Nijinsky and the designs of Nicholas Roerich, a painter and scholar of Russian history. Going into the performance, I was against the idea of splintering off the music from the art as a whole.
However, after attending this concert, I have been converted. My mind was changed once I began to notice more subtle parts of the music because they weren’t doubled with a visual. Specifically, during the second part, I heard some subtle footsteps in the music that I hadn’t noticed before. In the ballet portion, there is a section in which a group of young girls choose a sacrificial victim. The young girls walk around in a circle in a certain pattern and the first one to make a misstep is chosen. Then, they begin the precursors to the ritual as the elders enter. I had associated the noise with the movement of the dancers, but never realized the footsteps were also written into the music at some points during this extended scene. The lack of visuals made me pay more attention to the way the music itself is used to tell the story. Although I would still prefer to see the ballet as a whole given the choice, the music itself is interesting enough that it can stand alone.
Overall, the performance of “The Rite of Spring” was exceptional. If I had to recommend only one piece to ever see in person, it would be this one. Especially strong was the percussion, with Timothy Genis on the timpani and other percussion played by Daniel Bauch, J. William Hudgins and Matthew McKay. The distinctive and jarring rhythms were the lifeblood of “The Rite of Spring” and the percussion held together the entire symphony. Additionally, the signature bassoon solo was played masterfully by principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda. He made the melody in a register technically difficult for the instrument sound simple, which is a real measure of his skill.
My favorite moment of the performance was during the “Spring Rounds,” when the cacophony of all the instruments reaches its breaking point and transitions into a light, delicate melody before plunging into a low, pulsating melody. I felt the audience take a collective deep breath at this moment. In all of the performances I have seen at Symphony Hall, I have never experienced an audience so gripped.
This particular performance was staged as one of the BSO’s “Casual Friday” events, with a shorter program, a less formal dress code and atmosphere and no intermission. There were more children and families in attendance than usual, which was wonderful to see. Perhaps, though, the music was a little too intense for some of them — the child sitting next to me was covering his ears by the end of the first half. Tickets for this performance were available through the BSO’s College Card program, so there were a fair number of students in attendance as well. The audience was very excited as it began to fill the hall; the two ladies next to me were enthusiastically discussing Diaghilev’s talent for finding distinctive talent before the start.
Unfortunately, after such an exceptional first half with “The Adoration of the Earth,” the ending was underwhelming. It simply wasn’t intense enough, which was surprising considering that the BSO had no difficulty creating a sense of dread in the first half. During the final section, “Sacrificial Dance,” the climax in which the young maiden dances herself to exhaustion and finally death, there was no sense of her impending doom. It is meant to be a frantic moment as she dances herself into a frenzy and to the literal point of death. However, it felt as though the symphony was holding back at this point when it should be pushing itself to the precipice. I was excitedly waiting for the final moments, yet when the symphony reached them, I was left wanting more.
On a final note, the BSO paired Strainvky’s “The Rite of Spring” with Tania León’s 14-minute “Stride.” León was born in Havana, Cuba in 1943 and moved to New York City in 1967. “Stride” was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony. It was first performed in 2020 and won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her piece reminded me very strongly of the music from “West Side Story” (1957) and with every note in the back of my mind, I kept expecting it to morph into “Mambo.” León has commented that the only composers she knew about upon her arrival to New York City were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, and their influence on her work is clear. The piece calls for a unique set of percussion instruments, most notably the tubular bells it ends with.
Although León prefers not to be put into categories as a composer, the piece felt distinctly American. I wasn’t sure whether I liked the piece or not, especially as the beginning sounded like the string section was tuning (and not in a good way). It got better as it went along, and I especially enjoyed the trumpets.
However, I don’t think it was a good choice to pair with “The Rite of Spring” given that there was no intermission at this performance. “Stride” ended up feeling like a watered-down version of Stravinsky — all the chaos, without the intensity and dread. It’s ridiculous to compare the two pieces because they’re different compositions from different backgrounds with different goals, but when placed side by side, comparison is inevitable. It’s just too similar in style to Stravinsky. “Stride” can and should stand alone and should not be forced to be the lesser of the two.
During its original premiere at BSO in 1924, “The Rite of Spring” was paired with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral” (1808), among other more conventional selections. The other recent performances of “The Rite of Spring” at the BSO also included Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” (1930), which is a better choice, especially given the format of “Stride.” León and Ravel’s pieces made up the first half, followed by an intermission before Stravinsky. I think it’s always better to draw contrast than to draw comparison.
Overall, and I don’t say this lightly, the BSO’s “The Rite of Spring” was the best musical performance I have ever attended at Symphony Hall. My only regret is that I did not attend the BSO’s earlier performances in January — then, I could have gone to see it again!