A journey like no other

Reflections on "The Rite of Spring" at 100

Volume 113, No. 5May, 2013

Stephen Williamson
Stephen Williamson. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Stephen Williamson. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

My first performance of “The Rite of Spring” was in 2003 with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Maestro Valery Gergiev. Programmed along with “Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)” and the opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” this Stravinsky triple-bill program was revived by the Met for the first time since 1983 and featured the Met’s incredible ballet troupe. I was absolutely fascinated with the piece and entranced by the choreography. The dancers’ interpretations only enhanced the primal power of the music. Under Gergiev, we were on the edge of our seats. Every night was different and unexpected, spontaneous and thrilling. Ever since these ballet performances, the visual component of the work was indelibly linked in my brain to the music.

In 2006, I performed the “Rite” with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under the direction of James Levine. It was a complete and utter contrast with Gergiev’s interpretation, yet both were equally fantastic, which is the hallmark of a truly great composition. Levine’s version focused on balance, textures and subtle nuances, whereas Gergiev’s was an unbridled, wild beast. Maestro Levine’s interpretation was clear-cut, direct and carefully crafted, filled with lush colors and expressive textural detail.

This past season in 2012, I had the honor to perform it once again with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit. The “Rite” is a cornerstone of their repertoire, and this orchestra is a finely tuned machine. The rhythms and intricacies of the work were second nature for the CSO, while the sublime solos and richness of sound created an incredible combination of brawn and delicacy. Dynamic ranges were extreme, and the musicians were given the freedom to take exciting risks. Dutoit’s conducting style was spare yet in control, allowing the orchestra to play with abandon within a framework of guided interpretation.

To me, the greatest challenge the “Rite” presents to musicians and conductors alike is combining precision with power and spontaneity. I am filled with immense awe for Stravinsky’s ability to dictate notation onto a page that sounds primal and organic, yet otherworldly. “The Rite of Spring” is epic and timeless. From the first haunting notes of the bassoon to its ferocious, wrenching final spasms, Stravinsky takes us on a journey like no other. It is, for me, the ultimate example of the power music has to transform, illuminate and transport us to other worlds. I don’t think anyone leaves a performance of the “Rite”as the same person they were when they came in which, to me, is the whole reason to attend a concert in the first place. People come to be moved and lifted up to fresh heights, to be stretched and broadened. Every performance of this extraordinary work leaves me changed, challenged and inspired as a musician – and even more importantly – as a human being.

Stephen Williamson is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic