Reflections of "The Rite of Spring" at 100

Volume 113, No. 5May, 2013

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” we solicited anecdotes and reminiscences from Local 802 musicians about what playing this awesome piece means to them. Here are their stories:

Bam! What Was That Sound?
by Ron Wasserman

When Music Could Cause Riots
by Tom Olcott

Always a Surprising Ride
by Joseph Alessi

A Journey Like No Other
by Stephen Williamson

Playing the “Rite” in Mexico
by Karen Fisher

Ron Wasserman

Ron Wasserman

Bam! What Was That Sound?
by Ron Wasserman

Part I: The Adoration of the Contractor

The Augurs of the Gig

Spring 2009: here I am, sitting on stage at Avery Fisher Hall, subbing with the great New York Philharmonic. Indeed a high honor. Without a doubt, one of the world’s finest orchestras. The stage is chock-full of instruments. I’m checking the score as I write this to verify my memory: Eight – count-em, eight – French horns, various drums, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, guiro, etc. etc. The Philharmonic has spared no expense and has hired extra strings, including me. Oh that Carl Schiebler; one of the best contractors in the business! I’m sitting WAAAY in the back, probably 12th double bass. What a sight. That puts me squeezed between the two sets of timpani. Oh Jeez, I hope I didn’t leave my earplugs in my instrument case, nope, here they are. Ach, dropped one. Got it. Whew! AACH! Dropped my rosin. How embarrassing.

These Philharmonic players are just so phenomenal, and they know this piece really well. I’ve only played it a couple of times since a disastrous outing in college, but now that I have a few decades of orchestral experience under my belt, how hard could it be?

Above,  a sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, who designed the original costumes and sets of Stravinsky's 1920 ballet "Pulcinella." Picasso took the opportunity to make several sketches of the composer.

Above, a sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, who designed the original costumes and sets of Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet “Pulcinella.” Picasso took the opportunity to make several sketches of the composer.

Procession of the Wisest Conductor:

The enigmatic Russian maestro Valery Gergiev strides to the podium. He lightly gestures a soft, magical downbeat. I feel like a little insignificant caboose back here as this giant freight train pulls out of the station.

It starts so really quietly and slowly. The bassoon solos in an almost uncomfortably high-sounding tessitura, but Judy LeClaire plays it so beautifully. How many wind entrances are there? There are 20 woodwind players? That is soooo cool. It’s hypnotizing the way Stravinsky draws you into his musical universe. The harmonic and rhythmic languages are almost primal.

Over at the New York City Ballet, where I am principal bassist, I have discovered that there are two widely separated categories of ballet music. Luckily, we don’t play much of Category One, which is some of the worst, mundane and forgettable stuff. Category Two contains pieces like “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” which are just about the best music of any kind ever written. No piece better illustrates this latter category than Stravinsky’s monumental “The Rite of Spring.” The members of the NYC Ballet Orchestra are Stravinsky specialists, but surprisingly we’ve never tackled “The Rite.” That’s another reason I feel fortunate to have this chance with the Philharmonic.

Ritual of the Two Rival Tubas

BAM! What was that sound? I didn’t know an orchestra could play that loud! What instrument was that? Say, does a trumpeter or a trombonist play the bass trumpet? Wait, stop listening; pay attention to your own part. No, I have to listen. It’s too fascinating and engrossing. Where am I? Oh yeah, on page eleventeen or something. F-flat? That’s just another name for a D-double-sharp, which by any other name sounds as sweet. Open fifths sound so good with a giant bass section like this. Gergiev is SOOO far away. I can barely see his stubble beard and his toothpick-sized baton. Wait, he’s not using an ACTUAL toothpick, is he?

The first time I played this piece was in college about 33 years ago, which means that I can say that I’ve been playing it for a third of its life. Back then I remember thinking several times, “Please, God, let me count out this passage correctly!” Trying to count the time changes in “The Rite” is where I, for one, discover religion. I’ve always prided myself on being an excellent reader, but in Stravinsky, no matter how well you think you know certain pieces, when you least expect it a passage will just up and bite you.

Being under-rehearsed is the story of my career. Was that an actual chord or a cluster? (We bassist/composers instinctively need to keep track of the harmony.) Say, how would you ever fit all these instruments into an orchestra pit anyway? Maybe keep the orchestra on stage and put the dancers into the pit? Are those old ladies at this 11 a.m. matinee actually enjoying this cacophony? Yes, they are smiling broadly. Bless them anyway; there’d be no classical music in this country without them.

Part II: The Exalted Sacrifice of the Uniform Bowings

Twenty-second respite here. Relax…breathe. Uh-oh, it’s starting up loud and fast again; get counting, Ron. Will that second bass clarinet player notice my wrong note? Doesn’t matter, he’s just a sub too. Please, God, let me count out this passage correctly. Was there a change of bowing from the first stand that got lost in transit before reaching me six desks in the back? Can’t possibly see (then) principal bass Eugene Levinson’s bow arm. Can’t see him at all. Whoops, I’m committed. Feels like I’m up-bowing and down-bowing at the same time. Ohhhh! Thaaaat’s where John Williams borrowed that Star Wars bit from. How can anyone possibly dance to this? Say, am I going to get out of here in time to make my matinee at the ballet across the Lincoln Center Plaza? When am I ever going to get my lunch? Bread Soul Café once again.

Big, big, big 11/4 measure coming up: Awesome timpani/bass drum power! Reminds me how we hated that conductor so much in college. The orchestra conspired behind his back to play TWELVE hits, not eleven. I don’t think he ever figured it out. Ouch, did I just play only TEN quarter hits this time? Karma. Stravinsky bites again?

Mystic Circles of the Violin Scroll

Oh, that orchestra in college sure was an excellent-looking band. Can’t forget that. I’ve seen some darn unattractive choruses in my time. You know what I’m talking about. Speaking of movies, did you see “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” that fictional-historical drama wherein Stravinsky gets naked, and looks as handsome and muscular as a matinee-idol? I swear I am not making this up! Anyway, during large sections of the movie, he is shown working at the piano (sometimes naked) on a revision of “The Rite.” The musical temperament of the movie is very well done. Made me realize how pianistic this piece actually is.

The Sacrifice of the Bow Hair

Wow! What an amazing, brutal sound. 5/8, 7/8, 5/8, 6/8. Still so fresh after 100 years. Gotta dig in harder and hit Greg Wylie for a re-hair tomorrow. These beat patterns are actually starting to make sense and feel natural. What would Bach think about this if he were alive today? Would his head explode? Even faster now, 5/16, 2/16, 3/16, 2/8; what a groove! Yeah, baby! Human sacrifice? Those zany Russian pagans! Last page now, 3/16, 3/16, 3/16, 2/16, 5/16, 3/4, DEAD STOP! Pause, just a hair longer, listen to the flutes go way up high…wait for it…watch for Gergiev’s final downbeat, here it comes…BOOM!!!

Ron Wasserman is the principal bassist of the New York City Ballet.

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Tom Olcott

Tom Olcott

When Music Could Cause Riots
by Tom Olcott

This month is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which took place in 1913 in Paris. The reports of that initial performance are part of music lore and we now ask, with some incredulity: did people really riot on the street after the “Rite of Spring?” Was the event really a cause célèbre in wider Parisian society? Did it matter much? Apparently…it did! (Does a ballet, symphony, or opera matter so much today?)

But 1913 was the year immediately prior to World War I, perhaps the most stupidly wasteful war of all. (The comparatives here are not much better: few wars justify their costs.) And yet, despite the nearly sociopathic destruction of those war years, the art created just prior and just beyond the world’s physical and psychological destruction has persevered in spectacular form. The artists from that period – Stravinsky, Picasso and James Joyce, to name just a few – created radical and transformational works. These artists and others still project huge influences today.

Dancers from the original 1913 production of "Rite of Spring"

Dancers from the original 1913 production of “Rite of Spring”

The New York Times' report on the premier

The New York Times’ report on the premier

I relate that very brief and inadequate cultural history only to say that any symphonic musician who sees the “Rite” on their performance schedule takes a deep breath and understands that their schedule has changed. That 100-year-old piece always requires renewed attention. Why?

Well, no matter how many times you have played the piece, you need to ask yourself many questions, at least including the following:

  1. Do you know the time signatures? Can you count them…and feel them?

  2. Does your conductor know the time signatures?

  3. If you’re a string player, can you play like a machine, and then instantly leap to lyricism?

  4. If you’re a wind player, can you perform the delicate, soloistic, and rhythmically complex opening? And then can you play like a machine? And get lyrical again?

  5. If you’re a brass player, can you play the notes – high notes, very loud, with no preparation – and can you then play every other note on your horn? Short and loud, long and sustained? If so, can you trust your conductor to know the difference?

  6. And…hi there, percussionists! You all drive the boat. When you are on, everyone else is confident. But are you on?

Most of all, assuming all of those elements are more or less in place, the “Rite” is an intense on-stage experience. The rhythmic intensity and the sheer volume and profound presence of the full forces of a symphony orchestra make for an experience that is utterly overwhelming for a performer.

But the “Rite” was originally conceived as ballet. The huge forces are somewhat reduced for ballet pit performances due to space and numbers, and thus logistics. When done as ballet, a musician’s performing experience is, if anything, more intense. Why? Because the orchestra pit, and the ballet’s budget, can’t fit the entire “Rite” orchestra as conceived by Stravinsky.

So, for me, a few memories.

The very first time I performed the “Rite” was with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1970s. Prior to the first rehearsal I went to the music library and learned, sort of, how to conduct it. That’s the only way I got through it.

I also remember a performance at the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic in Scranton, when the resident maestro added a beat somewhere in Part 2, and, with some trepidation and instantaneous adjustment, our trombone section saved the day by somehow doing an instantaneous addition and subtraction of observable beats and therefore got everyone on track. (Afterward, the maestro said to us, “Thanks, gentlemen! But you did not follow!” Go figure.)

More memorably, more than 20 years ago, I performed a re-orchestrated version by Robert Rudolf with the Joffrey Ballet, when the company still had a New York presence. At the Joffrey, we performed a program consisting of Satie’s “Parade” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and “Rite of Spring.” Twice a day on some weekends…with an orchestra of 47! We were inspired by that music. We soldiered on in joy and wowed the audience. We were proud and inspired to create that music. We worked very, very hard. Oh, and, due to our union contracts, we were well paid.

Once, a conductor actually apologized for making a mistake and leading us all astray for a moment. We got him back on track. We all knew the piece!

I remember how the Westchester Philharmonic under Paul Dunkel nailed a performance of the “Rite” in performance after only three rehearsals. New York musicians are the best!

The American Ballet Theatre retains the “Rite” in its repertoire, although it has been at least 10 years since a performance. Let’s all hope that production can return to the stage.

The “Rite” remains always an event and a challenge to performers and to audiences alike. The experience of playing it defines our art and our profession.

I ask now whether our ballet companies, our audiences, and our local orchestras have the will to support and re-create this piece, which amazingly remains the seminal piece of both our last century and the current century! That support requires vision and the funding to support the forces that make the “Rite of Spring” so memorable and transformative for all who experience it. I surely hope that vision endures, having received and shared that gift myself. Without that vision, we are all diminished.

Trombonist Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union’s concert department.

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Always a Surprising Ride
by Joe Alessi

The famous opening bassoon part from "The Rite of Spring"

The famous opening bassoon part from “The Rite of Spring”

Joseph Alessi

Joseph Alessi

The Rite of Spring” is a composition that never loses its freshness or its avant-garde edge. I don’t find it dated in the slightest, in spite of the fact that it was written 100 years ago. My point of view is corroborated by modern audiences’ reactions to the piece as well; you can see on their faces that for some it is just as unnerving and cacophonous as it was on first hearing long ago in Paris. I have a lot of personal connections to this piece, maybe more than just about any other symphonic work I have performed.

My first “Rite of Spring” experience was a concert I did with the Santa Rosa Symphony in California when I was 15 years old, for which I played the bass trumpet part. Coreck Brown was the conductor, and I found myself terrified just to count it. After the first rehearsal I went back home to listen over and over to a recording of the piece and decided that I needed to feel the rhythms, above all else, especially in the “Danse Sacrale.” Counting it did not work nearly as well as just getting the rhythms in my ears and body.

Next was a performance at the Curtis Institute where I again played bass trumpet, this time with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting. That was a far more enjoyable concert because I felt I was genuinely getting the rhythms and felt more at ease on the bass trumpet too. I could step away from my playing long enough to appreciate the piece itself. Now it became terrifying for the right reasons – its relentless rhythms and sheer animalism.

Numerous performances followed, many of them good experiences. My personal relationship with the “Rite” started to evolve further when my son Joseph decided that he needed to be born during a snowstorm on the first night of a “Rite of Spring” series at the Philharmonic in February 1988. In the afternoon, when it was clear I had the choice of either missing my son’s arrival or playing the “Rite,” we got hold of my great teacher and colleague Glenn Dodson from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who happened to have the evening off. He zipped up the Jersey Turnpike through the snow in his Porsche 911, and just managed to make it in time to play for me on the 2 p.m. matinee.

That may have been one of the few performances of the “Rite” that my son has since missed and I began to see the “Rite of Spring” through his eyes. Joseph was first exposed to this piece as a small child while watching Disney’s “Fantasia” from 1940, with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember my son running around the room singing the themes from the “Rite” and pretending he was a dinosaur. We decided to buy him the scores of several of Stravinsky’s compositions when he was 5 or 6 years old because he said he might like to become a conductor some day. I sat down with him and taught him the conductor’s beat patterns for the “Rite” with the music playing loudly in the background. I was pretty shocked, a short time later, to hear him solfeging the entire opening of the “Rite of Spring,” from the opening bassoon line to the bass clarinet part. Then he learned to conduct the “Danse Sacrale” pretty much by memory. Even for a small child, the effect of this piece was enormous. Seeing it through my son’s eyes made it exciting all over again.

I think at this moment in my career I have performed the “Rite of Spring” close to 100 times. My favorite of all those concerts, without a doubt, was the most recent series with the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert in 2012. Maestro Gilbert took the slow movements sometimes quite a bit slower than I had encountered, so the rhythms were, if possible, even more insanely repetitive and foreboding. The fast sections were at times utterly savage. It was a very disturbing, electrifying experience and the audience collectively jumped to its feet.

As time has gone by, I have found that I have been able to let go and sink into the drama and fury of the piece, but only by knowing it all by feel. The notes come a lot easier now, so I can put all the counting aside and let the “Rite” take over while we play. No matter how many times I get to play this composition in the future, I know that each time will always be a surprising, upsetting and a wild ride.

Joseph Alessi is the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic

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Stephen Williamson. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Stephen Williamson. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

A Journey Like No Other
 by Stephen Williamson

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

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Playing the”Rite” in Mexico
 by Karen Fisher

Excerpt from the first clarinet part from "The Rite of Spring," Part 1, first section

Excerpt from the first clarinet part from “The Rite of Spring,” Part 1, first section

Karen Fisher

Karen Fisher

I wish I could say that I had the kind of musical career that gave me the opportunity to play “The Rite of Spring” numerous times with Great Orchestras under the batons of Great Conductors. Alas, that was not to be my destiny as a clarinet player; however, I did have the occasion to play the piece twice. My first experience with the “Rite” was on my first professional job out of college with an orchestra in Mexico in the late 1980s. Neither the orchestra nor the conductor were quite up to the task of tackling such a monumental piece, however most of us were young with plenty of hubris to spare. Although rehearsals were rough and painstaking, we were all pretty excited to finally have the chance to play the piece that had loomed so large for us throughout our young musical lives. No matter how well we knew our excerpts, those tutti sections were hard. Most of us were playing it for the first time. If you have to play “Rite of Spring” for the first time somewhere, a small orchestra in central Mexico is a good place to do it. In spite of our collective musical naïveté, it was a blast to play and a wonderful and valuable learning experience.

The circumstances surrounding the second time I played the piece were a bit more nerve wracking. I was called to sub on the Eb clarinet part at around 11 a.m. for an afternoon dress rehearsal and concert the same evening. Luckily, I was in audition mode at the time and my excerpts and Eb chops were in pretty good shape. It was also auspicious that I had played it before, and no matter how rough that performance may have been, that experience had prepared me enough to stave off a panic attack. As a last-minute sub, it was impossible to really pay much attention to the whole. I remember feeling relief when it was over that I hadn’t stepped in any rests or (God forbid!) squeaked!

Ah yes…the joys of freelancing!

Clarinetist Karen Fisher is the senior concert rep at Local 802

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