Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” has become a staple of the concert repertoire, so it’s easy to forget that it was originally written, and first performed, as a ballet. Indeed, the first performance of this work 100 years ago in Paris erupted in a near-riot. Was it a reaction to the music—revolutionary for its day and still jarring to modern ears—or the undoubtedly provocative and sensual choreography by Nijinsky? Perhaps both, but current thought is that it was probably the dancing.
The outcome that first night may not have been intended by Stravinsky, Diaghilev and company, but it is clear that the Rite of Spring was originally created as an entertainment experience. While there was no riot on Thursday night, February 21, the Philadelphia Orchestra did seek to fulfill this original intent by presenting an imaginative, multi-media version of this great work. This production, designed by the Ridge Theater Company, came complete with video projections, dancers, and even an aerialist!
The aerialist in question, Anna Kichtchenko, Moscow-born and a past participant in Cirque du Soleil, was the sole performer during the first half of the piece, “The Adoration of the Earth.” Using a large loop of cloth high above the stage in Verizon Hall, she “danced” to the music with a fascinating but scary series of maneuvers that demonstrated her agility, strength, gracefulness, and daring. In short, she was spectacular. But that was the dilemma—she was so spectacular and the audience was so engrossed by her performance (and so anxious about her personal safety, since she was performing without a net or a safety harness) that Stravinsky’s incredible music and the superb performance by the Philadelphians was all but forgotten. And that’s unfair to the music and the musicians. Of all the orchestral works one can think of, the Rite of Spring is decidedly NOT background music.
There was less of a distraction in the second half of the piece, “The Sacrifice.” For that segment, a group of five female dancers performed on the stage in front of the orchestra, with a solo dance at the end by the one chosen for the “sacrifice.” Although my focus was still on their dancing—sometimes fluid, sometimes spiky—I was able to devote some attention to the masterful performance by the orchestra, under the baton of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
As for the video, we saw some semi-abstract winter scenes in the first half, and lots of flowers in the second half, projected on several large screens hung from the top of Verizon Hall. While interesting and imaginative in many places, the color tended to be washed out, and the gaps between the screens visible from our seats in the First Tier, which diminished the effectiveness of this part of the presentation.
I’ve started by describing the much-anticipated second half of the concert, but the first half of the concert was certainly enjoyable, if more conventional. The program was originally scheduled to include a new work by Oliver Knussen. Reportedly, the work was not ready in time, so in its place, the orchestra performed one of Leopold Stokowski’s unmistakable Bach transcriptions, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. These transcriptions fell out of favor for many years. Purists complained that they were distortions of Bach, imposing the style and sound of a huge, modern orchestra upon the carefully crafted works of the master. But I’m no purist and, judging from the reaction of the audience, neither are my fellow concertgoers. These transcriptions should be enjoyed for what they are, grand, sometimes grandiose, versions of timeless works. And this is one of the grandest of them all, with a thrilling fugue and opulent orchestration.
From grandeur and profundity, we proceeded to Gallic lightness, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the brilliant soloist for this light-hearted work. It still strikes me as just a little too facile and emotionally vacant, but there’s no denying the inventiveness and charm and jazzy feel of this work. Thibaudet has the ideal effortless technique and entertainer’s temperament to sell this work and, with the sly contributions of principal trumpet David Bilger and other great Philadelphia wind players, this was a performance to savor.
It is no coincidence that the first American performances of all three works were given by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. The entire evening was not just a concert, but an entertainment event, and Stokowski, the Showman Extraordinaire, would have loved it.