If there were a Guinness World Records entry for "Most Infamous Music Premiere," Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring would almost certainly take the prize. The year was 1913. The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris was packed to the rafters in anticipation of the next ballet from the team that had produced The Firebird and Petrushka.
Then it began. A strained bassoon solo, pitched in the uppermost reaches of the instrument's range. Guttural offbeat chords in the strings. Bone-jarring dissonances in the brass. The primal sounds of Stravinsky's music coupled with Vaslav Nijinsky's angular, folk-inspired choreography whipped the audience into such a frenzy conductor Pierre Monteux could scarcely keep the performance together.
Nearly a century later, the shock of The Rite may have worn off a bit, but the awe remains. Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel says, "It's like Stravinsky wrote the piece one week ago."
"When you listen to The Rite of Spring," Dudamel told me during a recent conversation in his studio at Walt Disney Concert Hall, "you think of it as the symbol of modern music: controversial, honest, wild, simple all at the same time."
Dudamel is conducting this symbol of modernity in the Philharmonic's season-opening concert Sept. 30, as well as the world premiere of a symphony by Steven Stucky, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for music and a longtime artistic partner of the orchestra. Stucky's piece was co-commissioned by the LA Phil and the New York Philharmonic, which will perform it in concerts Nov. 29-Dec. 1.
During the tenure of Dudamel's predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, The Rite became a signature work for the orchestra. They opened Walt Disney Concert Hall with it in 2003; the first recording from Disney Hall featured The Rite; and Salonen led a blistering account of it in his final season here. As Dudamel kicks off his fourth season as music director, this will be his first go at The Rite with the LA Phil. "I think it will be different but with the same soul," he says.
Here in Los Angeles, where Stravinsky settled in 1940, The Rite of Spring has become something of a religion, but what is it about this astonishing masterwork that drives people to obsession? Composer Timothy Andres says it's Stravinsky's "brutal virtuosity" that draws us in, the way he "wields the orchestra like a dangerous weapon." The Rite, Andres says, "is a musical superhero's first display of his full powers."
Composer Nico Muhly says the premiere of The Rite in 1913 was "like hitting a huge gong in Paris then, whose resonances and overtones are still sounding all over the world." Both Andres and Muhly call The Rite "badass." Both say the piece hasn't aged a bit.
For a work of art to be truly great it must exhibit these timeless qualities. It must be able to maintain its relevance beyond a certain era — beyond that brief moment when its aesthetic may be fashionable or shocking. But more than that, a transcendent work of art demands a response.
No matter how one feels about The Rite, after experiencing it, ambivalence is not an option. It is impossible to hear the music and feel nothing. That Stravinsky doesn't provide us with the answer himself is where the true art lies.
The evening begins with Maurice Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess. I'm delighted to be co-hosting this live broadcast with my colleague from Classical KUSC, Alan Chapman. I hope you will join us for what promises to be an exciting evening. Listen live and please join Alan and me in the chat room on this page to share your thoughts about the performance.
- Maurice Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess
- Steven Stucky: Symphony (world premiere)
- Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic