New All the Time

by Vaughn Ormseth, Minnesota Public Radio
May 29, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Now just emerging from the winter of 2012/13, which bared its teeth well into May, Minnesotans are perhaps the best-equipped in the lower 48 to appreciate what Igor Stravinsky was up to when he composed The Rite of Spring. The ballet, originally conceived for choreography by the renowned dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, celebrates the end of Russian winter with a primitive fury we mid-Northerners can recognize at once, especially this year—an unstable fusion of sensory overload and shuddering force, of the lyrical and the cacophonous.

Subtitled "Pictures of Pagan Russia", The Rite marks its hundredth birthday today, though hundredth rebirth might be more fitting.

From its brazen debut in Paris on May 29, 1913—which sparked a riot —the work's cloven hooves stamped out not only winter but lingering 19th- and 20th-century conventions as well. It was to become one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century, perhaps the most, spawning styles and schools in its wake, liberating silenced voices. Yet to this day The Rite sounds at once new and ageless. "Very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring," said Stravinsky, "—and no theory. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed."

In January of 1958, during one of the worst winters on record in the Northeast, American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a series of performances of The Rite of Spring, a run capped the following day in a single recording session that produced an iconic LP of music Bernstein called "Only one of your everyday volcanic masterpieces...."

Released just four and a half decades after The Rite's Paris debut, the recording justly caused a stir ("Wow!" Stravinsky is said to have raved upon hearing it), and it remains a vivid, often electrifying take on an iconoclastic work from a conductor who was himself at times impatient with convention—the Bernstein who 13 years later would compose his eponymous MASS. To commemorate The Rite of Spring's 100th anniversary, Sony Classical has remastered the Columbia Masterworks LP from its original sources for re-release this month.

Bernstein's stamp on his first recorded Rite is frequently unmistakable, particularly in Part One (Adoration of the Earth), which at times seems closely to echo the signature brass and rhythmic verve of his own works, both those that pre-dated and followed the recording. In a rehearsal with another orchestra, Bernstein dubbed The Rite "a kind of pre-historic jazz," and the connection to jazz clearly helped him plumb its energies.

But there's a coiled, breathless intensity to Bernstein's conducting; if he taps at times into the delirium of jazz, it feels more ritualized than improvisatory. The Rite climaxes in human sacrifice, after all, marshalling (and placating) powers that eclipse subjective perceptions of them. Later recordings Bernstein made of The Rite seem grounded in richer conception of Stravinsky's art and themes, but lack some of the earlier bite. As if taking a cue from Stravinsky, mere "vessel" of The Rite, Bernstein creates the effect of the music playing itself, ceding the music's rhythmic impossibilities to the vernal gods while commanding the whole.

The re-released CD includes a fascinating essay on both The Rite and the recording by Jonathan Cott, who weaves together several first-hand accounts of the session that produced it. Several photographs—of the session, Bernstein and Stravinsky clasping hands, the original dancers, and a few of the original costume and set designs—accompany Cott's impressions, as do other conductors' takes on the work. The young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel calls The Rite "the beginning of heavy metal music....It's as if Stravinsky wrote the piece one week ago, it's new all the time." And this first of three recorded attempts by Bernstein to unleash the ballet revels in that primeval present, while proving that what he went on to say of it then rings just as true today: "It still shocks and overwhelms us."

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