Dec 25, 2015 Music
An NZSO concert proves an unexpectedly uplifting experience.
This article was first published in the January/February 2016 issue of Metro. Photo: Matt Grace.
Precisely 102 years after it became the hottest new thing to provoke a riot at a Paris premiere, The Rite of Spring is still the most avant-garde composition ever to achieve the status of classical concert-hall favourite.
This is either a disturbing comment on classical audiences, a testament to Stravinsky’s genius, or evidence that in 1913, the main current of Western musical innovation was in the process of flowing into more popular forms.
Certainly it’s hard to listen to the Rite and not feel that Stravinsky was deeply attuned to the rhythmic possibilities of jazz. No one had ever used polyrhythms — simultaneous but out-of-phase rhythmic patterns — to such brutal, arresting effect; few have since.
Under the direction of Spanish maestro Jaime Martín, the NZSO did a thousand and one things brilliantly when they played this incredibly testing work at Auckland Town Hall in late November. (Many years ago, I wistfully asked my violin teacher, an NZSO member at the time, if my youth orchestra was good enough to attempt the Rite. He snorted and said, “If you were, you’d be better than we are.”) Wind and brass soloists distinguished themselves across the board, the crucial percussion players could hardly have been better, and the strings played with a full-blooded precision I haven’t often heard them achieve.
But the crucial thing the orchestra did under Martín was maintain absolute unity of ensemble without tensing into rigor mortis. The Rite is a ballet score; its life is in its mad syncopated beats, and keeping it from falling to bits without losing all its flex is ridiculously difficult. When you hear it played well, you should want to get up and dance.
This night, by curious coincidence, was the hottest and muggiest of Auckland’s spring. A brewing storm finally broke while the concert was in progress, and we streamed out afterwards into actual streams overflowing the gutters.
The coincidence is that May 29, 1913, was a freakishly hot spring day in Paris: this, added to pre-war Paris’ culture of loud public dissent, is the reason usually given for the “riot” at the Rite’s premiere. (It was more like an all-in hissy fit.)
Music critics tend not to talk about the evanescent nature of musical performance and the slightly embarrassing fact we write about events that have already evaporated into memory and will never be repeated. (Do you trust us? Should you?)
Other artistic experience is somewhat fungible: you can watch a film and watch the same film again and then watch it a third time, and eventually, you will triangulate your range of possible responses. Whereas a concert experienced in heavy weather is not necessarily the concert experience you meant to sign up for, days or weeks or months earlier when you acquired the ticket, but typically, it’s the only version of that concert there will ever be.
What I’m saying is that on a very hot, very humid night, I was in no mood for this concert’s opener, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a piece I have never loved and regarded as too heavy-headed to want to make an effort with.
I considered sitting out in Aotea Square for the concert’s first half and slipping in for the Rite. (I could have filled this column with thoughts on the Rite very easily; that was my default plan in any case.)
Instead I thought, “To hell with it,” and gave the first half a try. The Lark was actually enjoyable. NZSO concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen gave Williams’ silvery violin solo line a sweet, sinuous strength which the massed strings underneath him perfectly balanced. Their muted felt blanket of sound gave Leppänen a base over which to soar, with the beautiful looping wind lines moving around him: this Lark really did seem to ascend.
In other words, this was the kind of playing that could cut through the fog of a tired mind. Ready to be bored, I heard the beauty everyone else has always seemed to hear in this piece. And then I heard the more savage beauty I’ve been loving in the Rite since I first heard it as a child. This was the best concert I heard the NZSO give in 2015.