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June 11, 2008 (Review of "The Rite of Spring--Beyond the ScoreŽ")

Symphony Silicon Valley goes 'Beyond the Score'
Program Tells Story Behind 'Rite of Spring'

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
When people think of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," they often think: "Riot." They remember that Stravinsky's revolutionary opus had something to do with the birth of modernism, polarizing audiences and even, by some accounts, provoking a near riot when it was first performed in Paris in 1913.

But how do you get beyond that core story? After almost a century, how do you get into the music and its underlying history in a meaningful way? That was the point of Symphony Silicon Valley's fascinating "Beyond the Score" program last weekend at the California Theatre.

It began with a multimedia recounting of the music's back story, a sort of Ken Burns goes to the symphony presentation - created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from which Symphony Silicon Valley leased the script and accouterments.

Then, with the audience steeped in the "Rite's" history - and the history's relationship to key points in the musical score - the program continued with a powerful performance, led by guest conductor Martin West, who has a way of turning on this orchestra and deserves to conduct it more often.

Attending Sunday's "Beyond the Score" event, I was struck by its freshness. There was nary a word about Stravinsky's partnership with Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, which danced to the "Rite" at the storied Parisian premiere. (A sentence or two wouldn't have hurt.)

Instead, the emphasis was on Stravinsky's lesser-known but seminal collaboration with the eccentric archaeologist-painter-theosophist Nikolai Roerich, who pushed the composer to imagine Russia's "true" roots in a pagan past.

It was Roerich, the "Rite's" original stage designer, who schooled Stravinsky in the nation's "ancient secrets," primordial rituals, folk dances and songs, whose harsh harmonies, trenchant rhythms and haunting melodies made their way into "The Rite of Spring," formally known as "Le Sacre du Printemps."

Aiding in the presentation were big-screen video footage (of rural folk ceremonies and singing) and artwork (Roerich's own landscapes, vibrating with color); and audio samples (a century-old recording of a band of country horn-pipers).

There were a narrator (Amy Hansen); an actor (Kevin Kennedy, co-founder of the City Lights Theater Company of San Jose), speaking Stravinsky's words about the "'sublime upsurge of self-renewing nature" found in the "Rite"; and a folk musician (Clark Welsh), playing traditional Russian and Slavic wind instruments that fascinated Stravinsky, including the zhaleika, with its pinched nasal tone, and a pair of dudki (Russian flutes).

All the while, West and the orchestra were on stage.

An audio clip of a Lithuanian woman singing a folk song (Roerich saw Lithuania as a gateway to Russia's ancient essence) would be followed by the orchestra performing Stravinsky's transformation, or flat-out theft, of the song.

Long before rap, Stravinsky was an unabashed sampler, building pre-existing bits into a thickly layered pandemonium.

It's a shame more young people weren't in the audience; "Beyond the Score" has real potential for developing new listeners.

With missionary zeal, the Chicago Symphony's creative director, Gerard McBurney, has developed "Beyond the Score" treatments of works by Bartok, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky and others. Symphony Silicon Valley will again go "Beyond the Score" with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in December. (Hopefully, the sound levels for the narrator and actor will be better than on Sunday, when some elderly audience members had trouble hearing.)

But back to Stravinsky: After intermission, it was possible to listen with new ears to the "Rite." You could hear, as Stravinsky put it, "the beating pulse of spring."

Maybe because the musicians had rehearsed so many excerpts for the first half, the performance lacked a sure-footed overall flow. There were hesitations, veering from one movement to the next, and not every bit of woozy color was in place.

Still, the players were tuned in to West - music director of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra - whose baton was a clear guide to dynamics, detail and direction. The performance he elicited was flush with pagan spirit: the groaning of the earth; the staccato blasts of ritual dances; the brutal, slashing rhythms of the final Sacrificial Dance.

There were inspired individual performances, including from principal bassoon Deborah Kramer; principal clarinet Michael Corner; and principal timpanist Robert J. Erlebach Jr. But this was a team effort. And, as if you couldn't tell, I'm looking forward to the next "Beyond the Score."

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