Web version: Beethoven versus Stravinsky 



ISO Classical Series Program No. 8
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Jan. 17-19

The last time the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performed Stravinsky’s epoch-making Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) the year was 1980, the conductor former ISO music director John Nelson, and the companion piece was Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. The programming originally had the Tchaikovsky to be played first, but Nelson thought the better of that ordering at the last minute, and began with the Rite, ending with the despairingly soft conclusion to Tchaikovsky’s final composition. The “fit” factor between those pieces was that they both begin with a bassoon solo — the Tchaikovsky near the bottom of its register and the Stravinsky at the top.

Raymond Leppard, during his 14-year tenure as ISO music director (1987-2001), chose not to perform the Rite, nor to assign it to a guest conductor. For a work both as popular and as seminal in music history, 27 years is way too long between performances. Instead we’ve been subjected to the much less worthwhile Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique every two or three years — including later this season. Time to give it a vacation.

But last weekend, we had a most auspicious return of the prodigal Rite with the return of ISO music director Mario Venzago after over a three month absence (he last conducted Beethoven’s Ninth here on Oct. 6). Instead of the “Pathétique” (which he’ll conduct here in about a month), Venzago chose Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”), Op. 68 to open his program. It also was the second visually complemented program this season, the result of ISO president and CEO Simon Crookall’s decision to add a bit of flair to the concert going experience. It must have helped: The Circle was filled from top to bottom on Friday and sold out on Saturday.

With the stage extended forward through the first several rows (in a very non-complementary wedgewood blue), there was room for both a very large orchestra and choreography. However, to introduce the Beethoven, Tony Award-winning Welsh actor Roger Rees, in costume, sat at a desk and proceeded to read Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, describing his despair at his oncoming deafness, his thoughts of suicide, and reconciling his desire to compose “all that was within me” first. It was a most effective lead-in to the “Pastorale”—which in fact was written some six years later.

Continuing his penchant for a “modern” interpretive approach, Venzago moved this five-movement programmatic paean to the rustic countryside — a symphony unlike any other ever written — along at a fast clip, but with nearly seamless phrasing. His approach was quite effective, though the precise phrase articulation we hear from other conductors can work as well. The Scherzo (“The Merry Assembly of Country Folk”) went at an appropriately measured pace to allow for a considerable accelerando at the end. This leads to the “Thunderstorm” where the timpani first enter, then to the final “Shepherd’s Song,” two trombones joining the fray. Venzago kept a compelling sense of motion throughout a piece which all-too-easily can become over-relaxed.

Following the break, the visuals for the Rite were more ambitious. With the assistance of Rees playing the young Stravinsky, Ricardo Melendez — Virginia’s Workshop Theatre Group artistic director — playing the Rite’s original choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, a group of dancers — wearing black leotards — from David Hochoy’s Dance Kaleidoscope recreating Nijinsky’s choreography, several students from Butler University’s theatre department scattered about the hall yelling insults at what was going on, we got about a ten-minute recreation of the riotous atmosphere of The Rite of Spring’s world premiere on May 19, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in Paris.

No one had seen choreography—or heard music like this, creating one of the biggest fiascos in music history. Many greats of the Romantic era were in attendance. Camille Saint-Saëns heard the piece open with a bassoon playing an unheard-of high C; he yelled “What instrument is that?” and walked out. Ironically, a short time later, the first concert performance was given to overwhelming applause; the Rite was now launched for all time.

Venzago’s ensuing reading of the 35-minute ballet score, depicting a pagan ritual in which a young virgin is sacrificed to “help” replenish the earth in springtime, was itself startling: He took several of the dances—specifically the “Dances of the Young Girls,” in Part 1, the Introduction to Part 2, as well as the ensuing “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls” and “The Evocation of the Ancestors” at a pace slower then I’ve ever heard them. Not only did Pierre Monteux, who conducted the world premiere, stay with us long enough to record the work on LP in the mid-’50s, but Igor Stravinsky himself rerecorded it in the ‘60s, both with those sections taken much faster. Yet Venzago’s beat remained incessant and unchanging throughout each dance. No one unfamiliar with the orthodox tempos (which mirror the two mentioned above) would have sensed any error. Known for his expressive rubato in many works, our maestro expressed a metronomic beat throughout. The performance and the evening were hair raising.



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