The Kansas City Symphony’s theme for this season is World War I, specifically music that was written in the years leading up to World War I that would forever change the way music is written.
For its next concert, the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern will perform two works that were at the vanguard of this revolution: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy and “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky. Yefim Bronfman will join the symphony for Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.
Over the years, the startling innovations of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” had become so absorbed by audiences that by 1940, Walt Disney was able to use the music in the dinosaur sequence of his film “Fantasia” with no one batting an eye.
But if you listen to the music intently, either in the concert hall or at home with a good recording, one is still shocked by the brutality and savagery of Stravinsky’s score.
Written in 1913, “The Rite of Spring” can definitely be seen as a harbinger of the slaughter that would soon engulf the world and a new kind of classical music for which the old rules no longer applied.
“One could argue quite convincingly that if there is one piece that represents this seismic change that happened as the 19th century bled into the 20th and then exploded into World War I it would be ‘The Rite of Spring,’” Stern said. “We talk sometimes about certain pieces being the creation of a completely new music, some composers inventing a completely new language, taking a completely new direction, and so it was with ‘The Rite of Spring.’”
The piece was first performed in Paris on April 2, 1913, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and sets by the avant-garde mystic Nicholas Roerich. That first performance provoked a strong response from the audience, although, according to Stern, it would be an overstatement to call it a riot.
“The rioting at ‘The Rite of Spring’ was a little bit manufactured,” Stern said. “Obviously there was some kind of claque. People got very excited and it was all a kind of blown-up thing. God only knows what would have happened in the age of Twitter and the Internet. It’s very important to remember that 10 days later, I think, the ballet was given again in Paris and it was hailed as a masterpiece. So clearly the huge outrage and scandal was short-lived.”
Now it is a firmly entrenched part of the concert hall repertoire and still thrills audiences with its audacious rhythms evocative of ancient Slavic tribes.
“A great performance of ‘The Rite of Spring’ does not rely only on rhythmic precision,” Stern said. “There is so much more behind it in terms of color and the drama of the story. You have to approach ‘The Rite of Spring’ with a narrative, and if not in an operatic way, certainly in a theatrical way. It’s a fantastic concert piece, but you need to find a way to make the sections clear like you would scenes in a movie or acts in a play or chapters in a book, and yet weave them together so there’s an arc to the performance which ultimately brings closure to the story.
“The end of the second part is terrifying because the hallucinatory, bloodthirsty frenzy is so out of control and you see humanity slipping into something so uncontrollably wild and almost demonic. You have to build the performance leading to that. The whole thing is a kind of disruption of normal human activity, but it gets more and more out of control as the piece goes along.”
Also on the program is a work that in its own way is just as revolutionary. Inspired by Stephane Mallarmé’s dreamy poem of the same name, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was another work that set the music world on its ear. As Pierre Boulez wrote, “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”
“You could argue that the Debussy, ‘Afternoon of a Faun,’ even though it was written at the end of the 19th century, is the first 20th century piece,” Stern said. “I mean, it’s so evocative. What it manages to do in 10 minutes. The incredible chromaticism and harmonic disorientation that that music has while being incredibly beautiful and impressionistic. It was something no one heard before, and it liberated composers into the 20th century.”
On the first half of the program, powerhouse pianist Bronfman will be the soloist for Brahms second piano concerto. The composer himself gave the first performance of the work in Budapest on Nov. 9, 1881. It was an immediate success and has remained a favorite with pianists and audiences ever since.
“Brahms’ second is a huge piece with unbelievable intimacy,” Stern said. “You know, in many concertos the orchestra gets bigger and bigger until everything explodes in the finale. Well, the Brahms second does have a big ending, but the orchestra gets smaller. The slow movement with that incredible dialogue between solo cello and piano is one of the most heart-rending, perfectly nuanced moments of intimate chamber music that he ever wrote, even though it’s for orchestra.”
Patrick Neas is program director for RadioBach.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in “La Cenerentola”
The upcoming joint recital of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Juan Diego Flórez on Feb. 1 on the Harriman-Jewell Series is one of the most anticipated classical music events in Kansas City in 2015.
Here’s a tasty little appetizer.
Sunday afternoon, the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport will broadcast “La Cenerentola” starring DiDonato and Flórez in a colorful, joyous production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
Cenerentola (or Cinderella) is a DiDonato specialty. In fact, she performed the role in a memorable production for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2004. But the critics are positively gaga over this particular “Cenerentola.” James Sohre with Opera Today writes that DiDonato and Flórez give “definitive performances in Rossini’s enchanting rags-to-riches rendition.”