Bostonians find catharsis in Stravinsky

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, the International Herald Tribune, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. 29.04.2013

BOSTON -- It was supposed to be a festive occasion – the arrival of spring and the centennial of the premiere – but dark undercurrents from the Boston Marathon bombings dominated a recent performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Boston’s New England Conservatory Philharmonia. The post-traumatic tension in the audience was palpable until Stravinsky’s elemental throbbings erupted onstage.

Then release and catharsis came, and you could almost hear the sighs of relief over Stravinsky’s fortissimos. 

Boston remains in a state of shock as mysteries remain on the origins of the ethnic Chechen bombers who rocked this community. Three people were killed and 260 injured in the attack, 16 or whom have suffered amputations. Victims and their families remain constant features of media accounts two weeks after the fact. The slogan “Boston Strong” has become the rallying cry of the community and runners pledge that the marathon will go on next year, albeit with tightened security.

But it was a musical event that seemed to bring unexpected relief when the visceral poundings in The Rite rattled the Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The audience seemed to feel a rush of release amid Stravinsky’s violent portrayal of the coming of spring. 

The intended occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Paris premiere of The Rite, but circumstances conspired to change the tone. The orchestra had been forced to work around police security controls to find rehearsal time and prepare this highly disciplined, polished performance. One player in the orchestra said in an internet audio interview that rehearsals were conducted in a climate of “fear and danger”.

The audience held its breath as the high-pitched bassoon quietly set the tone, soon to turn into chopping, pounding rhythms that the audience knew were coming.  Something close to controlled pandemonium followed, a musical depiction of an imaginary pagan Russian tribe’s sacrifice of a maiden to the gods. In the ballet, she dances herself to death. 

The audience desperately needed a clean break from the horrors of the April 15 bombing, and finally they got it.

Conductor Hugh Wolff tackled The Rite confidently and never wavered as he brought off some of the repertoire’s most complex rhythms and dynamics. Stravinsky keeps the listener off balance by constant changes of time signature, at points switching bar by bar. The quicksilver changes can test the most seasoned professionals. 

The other challenge of this piece is maintaining the balance of powerful percussion and brass blasts with Stravinsky’s haunting melodies. Prior to the inaugural performance in Paris in 1913, conductor Pierre Monteux appealed to Stravinsky to rescue passages that were drowned by the percussive power of the orchestra. Stravinsky cooperated, and continued tinkering with The Rite for 30 years. 

The composition and primitive choreography of the ballet set traditionalists hooting at the premiere a hundred years ago while the avant-garde cheered in the gallery. The Boston crowd seemed almost as moved by the music alone but nobody climbed over their seats or attacked the bourgeoisie as the avant-garde famously did at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in 1913.

Musically, as Wolff wrote in his program notes, “no one was prepared for the giant leap forward of The Rite” when it was first performed. Within a few years it was recognized as a historic break with romantic tradition and a new era of daring experimentation in serious music had dawned.

Bostonians discovered that solace and emotional release can sometimes be best achieved through great music.

The Rite is one of the most frequently recorded pieces in the repertoire and continues to inspire variations and derivatives a hundred years after its premiere. One of the most original efforts is the new visualization of the entire work by two Americans, music synthesist Jay Bacal and music animator Stephen Malinowski. The structure of the composition becomes visible onscreen, and the eye blends with the ear to understand it. This extraordinary animation can be seen and heard on YouTube at this address:



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