Santa Cruz Symphony: Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps

               

I have the good fortune of having heard two unforgettable performances. In ca. 1968 I attended a Cleveland Orchestra concert with Igor Stravinsky conducting Le Sacre du Printemps. In ca. 1971, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a more profound performance of Le Sacre du Printemps with Pierre Boulez conducting. At that point in time the Cleveland Orchestra was considered among the great orchestras of the world in a  group that included the symphony orchestras of Boston, New York, Chicago, Berlin, Concertgebouw and Vienna! When Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducted his Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Vienna, a major music critic wrote “Dudamel and his Venezuelan “band” are nipping at the heels of the great Vienna Symphony Orchestra.” Can you feel it San Francisco?

Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev recruited his services to compose works for the Ballets Ruses. In 1910 Stravinsky composed the acclaimed Firebird, in 1911 Petrushka and in 1913 his much praised Le Sacre du Printemps. In 1961 Stravinsky wrote “I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre duPrintemps.”Its English title, “The Rite Of Spring,” lends a suitably chilling dimension. The scenario is a pagan ritual in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death. It is boldly conceived in Stravinsky’s musical imagination as exemplified by his huge selection of instruments: woodwinds, piccolo, 3 flutes, alto flute, 4 oboes, cor anglais, clarinet in E-flat, 3 clarinets in B-flat, clarinet in A, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, brass instruments galore, a huge tour de force of percussion, and a full compliment of strings.

Prior to the Santa Cruz Symphony concert, lecturer Don Adkins gave a 30-minute entertaining, informative talk describing the highlights of the three works to be featured, including a demonstration of a dance move by choreographer Nijinsky, “borrowed” from from Ballets Russes. Adkins’ presentation was done in fine style!

The work has two parts. The first, Le Sacre du Printemps, works its way through eight fantastic sections beginning with Introduction and ending with Dance of the Earth. Part II also begins with Introduction, weaves its way through six sections and ends with Danse sacrale (L’Elue) (Sacrificial Dance). And all THIS done with Halloween in plain sight. What perfect timing!

The bassoon opened Part I: L’ Adoration de la Terra (The Adoration of the Earth) with a haunting, seductive solo on “C” above middle C, at the top of its playing register and flawlessly performed. Gradually conductor Stewart cued in the clarinets, cor anglais and horns, allowing the texture to strengthen and thicken until it sounded like the swarming of insects and other spring noises twisting and turning in preparation for the second bassoon entry at the 3:30 mark that signaled a perfect clarinet trill and the rhythmic entry of the strings. The thick, accented rhythmic Augurs of Spring section that followed served as the central nervous system of the work, controlled and well balanced under Stewart’s baton. Accents in the strings and horns fell on the second and fourth beats creating a syncopated trochee (strong-weak) rhythmic grouping created a quasi intoxicated moto perpetuo that was impeccably performed.

In the Dances of the Young Girls two chords played together, each in a different key that created moments of white heat.The rhythmic momentum was sharply punctuated by the bassoon and trumpets. At the 6:45 mark the trumpets and timpani entered in frenzied fashion effectively signaling the Ritual of Abduction. Wild brass continued to create hysteria until the 8thminute when Stewart cued in trills by flutes that signaled the Spring Rounds section. I have always found this section most fascinating in which the orchestra evokes a hypnotic sensation that lures and lulls the audience into a dark, endless, void only to be startled 2 minutes later by a percussive fortissimo blast by the bass drum, timpani and tam-tam that left a shimmering, metallic effect suspended over the entire orchestra.

At the 16 minute mark Part II Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice) opened creating an eerie, surrealistic texture of atmospherics. Well controlled, demanding meter changes flowed from 4/4 to 5/4 to 6/4 and back to 5/4 creating a macabre twist of uneasiness if not vertigo.

Throughout the performance the orchestra created exciting moments covering a wide spectrum of sound from extremely simple melodic fragments, some taken from Russian folk music, that joined with other fragments to create larger, more complex textures from subtle tranquility to the wild hysteria of the Glorification of the Chosen One at the 24thminute. The timpani’s role was most impressive throughout! The final section Danse Sacrale (L’Elue) (Sacrificial Dance) was diverse and copious with trumpets cutting through the thick percussive layers like a sharply honed razor. Maestro Stewart pushed rhythmic structure, with its varying contrary, contradictory rhythms and unusual meters to its utmost, right to the final chord. Maestro Gustavo Dudamel’s statement that “Stravinsky could be the origin of Heavy Metal” can be taken seriously!

This performance certainly demonstrated the mark of high quality orchestral professionalism of the Santa Cruz Symphony and left its mark indelibly etched in the back of the cranium. The orchestra can consider itself elevated to the next level. Once again, Stewart conducted all three works without the score!  

Daniel Stewart conceived the idea of featuring a concert of Parisian music from the La Belle Époque (ca, 1871 to 1914). In the mix we have the Russian, Igor Stravinsky, a Frenchman, Claude Debussy and finally an American, George Gershwin in one of his signature works, An American in Paris.

The concert began with Debussy’s familiar Prelude L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) a poem by the French author Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). The poem depicts a faun playing his pan-pipes alone in the woods and becomes aroused by passing nymphs and naiads. The faun pursues, but tires and falls asleep filled with wishful visions.

At first hearing, the work seems improvisational and almost free-form; however, Debussy organized a complex fabric of musical cells and motifs that carefully developed and blended through sections of the orchestra — most notably the main idea of the solo flute moving to the oboe, return to the flute and then in unison. This idea was magically performed by flautist Laurie Camphouse and oboist Bennie Cottone. The violas carrying the melody above the violins was also impressive.

Gershwin set An American in Paris into three parts: The Hustle and Bustle “street music” of the Busy City, Paris by Night and Postlude Memories. The work in this concert setting could not shed its DNA of a Broadway Musical. In the second section, a riveting violin solo cadenza by Concertmaster Chinh Le led into the well-known trumpet solo by Matthew Ebisuzakiv that brought attention to a Jazz Club atmosphere.

The Postlude Memoires were intended to rather noisily reflect the many wonderful experiences summed up as: ‘so much to see, so much to do, and so little time for it all’.

The charismatic Stewart showed his appreciation for the excellent showing by shaking the hand and congratulating practically every member of the orchestra. A well deserved BRAVO!

End

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