A century on, Stravinsky's 'Rite' still summons the caveman

Sun May 26, 2013 6:43am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - A hundred years ago this week, the premiere of Russian emigre composer Igor Stravinsky's pounding, pagan, pulsating "The Rite of Spring" caused a near riot in Paris and changed the face of modern music. It still makes conductors' hair stand on end.

"I have to admit that when we come to the moment just before the last dance, and the bass clarinet goes down, my blood pressure is up, I have this sort of adrenaline surge," Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen told Reuters recently in London.

"It's an old caveman reaction - now you have to be prepared to leap even higher than ever before because the saber-toothed tiger is just behind you - and I love it," he said of facing the piece's finale, with its tricky, irregular and shifting rhythms.

On Wednesday night a sold-out audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, where on May 29, 1913, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy attended perhaps the most notorious premiere in the history of music - Giacomo Puccini called it "sheer cacophony" - will get a chance to relive that thrilling night.

The 100th anniversary of the short work by the then little-known, bespectacled and clerkish composer, who somehow distilled man's primitive nature in a raucous and earthy half hour of music that concludes with a virgin's dance to the death, will get a double dose of the Rite.

Valery Gergiev will lead the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in a 1987 reconstruction of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky's 1913 original choreography by ballet historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. That will be followed by a new version by Berlin-based choreographer Sasha Waltz.

Stravinsky's music "conceals some ancient force, it's as if it's filled with the power of the Earth", Waltz said in conjunction with the premiere of her ballet earlier this month by the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, in comments on the website of the Russkiy Mir cultural and educational foundation.

Stravinsky's changing time signatures and use of dissonance in the Rite set the tone of music for the rest of the century.   Continued...

Dancers perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Rite of Spring" ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in this March 26, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/Files