The NZSO’s “The Rite of Spring” replete with anniversaries and commemorations

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Listener present:

*CHOPIN –  Original piano works orchestrated for the ballet “Les Sylphides” – 1909
◊STRAVINSKY – Ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) – 1913

*Michael Houstoun (piano)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
◊Performance Visuals – Delainy Kennedy (Nocturnal)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 10th July, 2021

Quite a day on a number of counts, and especially in Wellington! – it all gathered momentum and excitement as the evening approached, with the prospect of Matariki fireworks over the harbour, and immediately afterwards, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s “The Rite of Spring” concert. For people of my generation, anybody typing or repeating out loud the date may have suddenly been revisited in the memory by a resonating radio jingle from the years 1966/67 – “the 10th of July – next/this year!”, referring to the arrival of decimal currency, entertainer Noel Coward’s famous quip regarding “the potency of cheap music” coming true for me all over again on this day!

As well as commemorating two anniversaries pertaining to Igor Stravinsky – sixty years since the composer came to Wellington to conduct the NZSO in parts of his “Firebird” Suite, and fifty years since his death – this NZSO concert was innovative in representing something of the character of that fateful evening of May 29th 1913 on which the composer’s ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) was given its premiere at the then newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Stravinsky work was preceded on the programme by “Les Sylphides”, a suite of orchestrated piano works by Frédéric Chopin. Stravinsky was actually one of the composers commissioned in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev to produce the suite for the Ballets Russes Company. Here, we had pianist Michael Houstoun playing those same works in their original versions (and, incidentally, celebrating a personal anniversary, it being fifty years since he first performed with the NZSO).

Presumably this, the opening work on the programme that evening in Paris would have scarcely caused an eyebrow to rise. However, the riot that broke out in the auditorium from almost the beginning of the Stravinsky work has earned the evening (and the music) a notoriety which lasted for much of the twentieth century. It has all been well-documented, and, of course, in many instances contradictorily – a number of accounts claimed that the spectators’ bewilderment and subsequent derision of “Le Sacre” was due to the choreography (devised by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky), rather than the music. Stravinsky himself referred to Nijinsky’s choreography in later years in contradictory ways – in a letter to a student friend he described Nijinsky’s work as “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I (Stravinsky) wanted it”, while, much later to his amanuensis, Robert Craft, he scornfully described Nijinsky’s dancing maidens in the work as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”.

The work’s first conductor, Pierre Monteux (who went on to record “Le Sacre” four times over his lengthy career) once confessed to never liking the music. Speaking of the infamous premiere in an interview almost fifty years afterwards, he observed, “I did not like “Le Sacre” then. I have conducted it fifty times since. I do not like it now.” I’m sure that statements like that of Monteux’s would have actually enhanced the music’s mystique and popularity – it’s irrefutable that most of the world’s eminent conductors, whatever their feelings concerning the work, seem to have either presented it in concert or recorded it. Stravinsky himself also made four recordings as conductor of the work, the earliest (coincidentally, during the same year as Monteux’s) in 1929! Since then, the music has become as much a concert-hall as a stage-ballet classic, and one of the most oft-recorded of all twentieth-century pieces of music.

It was a nice idea getting Michael Houstoun to play the original Chopin pieces from which the ballet “Les Sylphides” was made – of course the orchestrated pieces could have instead been performed to great effect, though I thought the actual visual scenario of the piano being played, as here, in front of numerous empty orchestral chairs and music-stands perfectly evoked the idea of a “ballet-company répétiteur” running through the pieces for the next rehearsal, in preparation for the actual ballet with an orchestra.

The pieces themselves as a group made an extremely effective programme – I’ll probably be thought of as snobbish or elitist by saying that I wish the audience had been asked to save its applause for the end, but I still would have preferred the music to have flowed from dance to dance, continuing uninterrupted until the obvious applause-inducing  fireworks at the end of the concluding “Grande Valse Brilliante”! – I joined in heartily enough at THAT point! Houstoun played them all very much as “dance” pieces, eschewing extremes of interpretative expression, but still managing to bring out the poetic intensities of both the Op.32 No.2 A-flat Nocturne, and the totally adorable A Major Prelude. He caught the essential orchestral swagger of the well-known “Polonaise Militaire”, especially in its Trio section, resonating the stern trills with flair and purpose.

I thought it interesting comparing the characters of the individual pieces, especially the “valses”, having two (Op.70 No. 1, and Op 64 No. 2) composed much later than the Op.18 “Grande Valse Brilliante”, and sounding rather more emotionally “laden” than the earlier work. The Mazurkas are singular beasties, perhaps the closest Chopin got to his native land’s “folk” expression, Houstoun readily conjuring up the stamping of feet and swirling of skirts in Op.33 No. 2, complete with the ending’s impish upward gesture! – and catching the contrasting wistfulness of Op.67 No.3.  As for the Polish composer’s Nocturnes, often very un-Nocturne-like in places, here in Op.32 No. 2 the music’s intensities during the minor-key section were seamlessly integrated by the pianist into the flow, as was the return of the opening theme, with its somewhat vertiginously-decorated variation, followed by the beautifully-contrived echoing of the work’s opening at the end.

Extended applause brought Houstoun back to give us an encore, one which, to my shame, I didn’t recognise, but (thanks to help from Houstoun himself) have at last identified– the second of Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études, in A-flat Major a pretty, very chordal piece with melodies as sub-plots in the bass – Houstoun made the reprise of the opening a magical happening, voicing the cross-rhythms with prayer-like beauty.

Seated before us on our return after the interval for the Stravinsky work was what appeared an enormous group of players, many of whom were obscured almost completely from sight from where I was sitting, mid-auditorium, though the impression of a “large assemblage” still remained. I’ve always thought it a pity that the orchestra’s platform in the MFC isn’t “tiered” right throughout (as was the case for the players when in the Town Hall) so that those players sounding the “middle voices” in orchestral textures (mostly the winds) can be seen as well as heard. There’s no visibility problem for audiences in the galleries above, but in the stalls the physical orchestral aspect often resembles the prow of a ship bearing down upon the observers from “below” so that only the figurehead(s) and the front of the bow are visible, with the “decks” and all who sail on them obscured by the frontispieces!

I was, I confess, anticipating the prospect of the “Nocturnal” performance visuals with little joy, my previous experience of such things being along the lines of thinking them at best irrelevant, and at worst, distracting. Still, an “open mind” was obviously called for, as I reminded myself while waiting for the arrival of the conductor, Gemma New.

Warmly greeted by the audience, New acknowledged the applause, took up her station, and stood before what seemed like a firmament of dimly-lit stillness, before enabling the opening notes from the bassoon to materialise in a sonic sense as if sounded in a dream, slowly and timelessly, a hypnotic beginning, the instrument enabled to almost “speak” in primitive but expressive tones, the sounds unfolding and transfixing us with their direct, spontaneous-sounding lines, mirroring New’s balletic movements of direction and encouragement. We were drawn into the sounds’ gestation, held by the extraordinary panoply of interacting textures creating a tapestry of burgeoning interest.  A sudden silence and the bassoon returned, its melody this time answered rhythmically by plucked strings, softly at first, and then vehemently, with biting, asymmetrical accents, the “Augurs of Spring” dance – I did remember occasionally to look at the screen backdrop, whose images weren’t as intrusive as I’d feared at this stage, dancing detached lines relating to the music’s trajectories.

New kept the rhythms steady, the detailing forthright and precise, picking things up again after the brief brass-and-timpani irruption, the strands regrouping, with the “ringing” percussion adding their various voices to the growing excitement, the trajectories augmented with increasing exhilaration and agitation, rhythmic accents pounding on and off the beat. A moment of disruptive chaos sounded by a “warning” chord and huge percussive beats, brought the “Ritual of Abduction”, with its frenzied, asymmetrical chaotic-like interchanges, the instrumental groupings wondrously detailed, the strands “keeping their heads” amid the uproar, New’s rhythmic control enabling some magnificent playing, the figurations from all parts of the ensemble forward-thrusting and dovetailing their varied impulses with real flair!

Trilling flutes emerged from the remains of the uproar, as clarinets intoned a brief hymn-like chorale, leading to the famous “Spring Rounds”, massive step-wise chords, launched by the lower strings and patterned by the upper strings, with winds and horns advancing the hugely weighty theme as it strode forward, here massively and tumultuously taken up by the heavy percussion, as the brasses roared their savage exultations. Though the music wasn’t giving me much opportunity to register what was appearing on the screen, I did notice a dancing figure seemingly made of water from a cascading fountain, one whicb I thought cleverly and expressively reflected the in-flux nature of the music throughout this section of the work, if predominantly liquid and balletic rather than monumental and primitive!

The trilling flutes and ritualistic clarinets returned, introducing the “Games of the Rival Tribes”, New marshalling her forces brilliantly as brass and percussion seemed to vie for supremacy, with strings and winds advancing the music’s thematic presence amid the agitations – a great trilling, almost maniacal in its energy, seemed to “herd” the music into a giant vortex, with moaning string ostinato and baleful brass calls riding percussive irruptions bubbling up alarmingly from below – virtuoso orchestra stuff was happening here, I thought, as more and more anarchic voices joined the fray, New as kinetic in her movements as ever, as she gave the mayhem its due before suddenly bringing things to silence.

Here was the “Sage’s Sacred Kiss of the Earth”, a breath-catching moment coloured by eerie winds, timpani and strings, then overwhelmed by orchestral tumult (the MFC’s relative lack of resonant tone here reducing the impact of the orchestra’s splendid playing at this point), with New bringing in layer upon layer of frenzied figurations over an ever-burgeoning bass ostinato that rose like a whale out of the sea and crushed the surface activities with a remorseless flick of its tail. Heart-stopping stuff!

As with the first part of the work “The Adoration of the Earth”, the second part “The Sacrifice” also featured a restrained, atmospheric introduction, more eerie and muted than that preceding the first – New and the players evoked a wonderfully claustrophobic sound-scape, here, the atmosphere momentarily spoilt when somebody on stage dropped something with a clatter! The softly-played but hugely suggestive chords conjured up unfathomable depths over which the scarcely-moving ambiences floated (I remember how telling was the Disney animation in the famous “Fantasia” film at this point in the music’s sequence, the sense of unease igniting and  “growing” as inexorably as did the sounds, with wind and brass sounding terse, uncomfortable scraps of feral intent) – what control, here, from conductor and orchestra, as all was suddenly let “off the leash” with yelps of excitement-cum-fear from brass and strings as the percussion suddenly crashed in, announcing “The Glorification of the Chosen One”. Again I felt the hall’s ambience “taming” the impact of the resonances here, acceptable in a theatre’s orchestral pit with action on the stage to take in, but a shade too dry to my ears for purely orchestral realisation!

There was no let-up, with “The Evocation of the Ancestors” bringing forth stenorian orchestral shouts capped off by drum rolls – later with cor anglais and bass flute phrases “colouring” the increasingly fatalistic scenario, culminating in a kind of “nightmare” processional, there followed what sounded to me like the work’s most uncompromising sequence, the “Sacrificial Dance” of the Chosen One. Interrupted by the Ancestors requiring some more “Ritual Action”, the victim then continued her sacrificial dance even more frantically and desperately, , a fantastical dovetailing of different orchestral impulses locked in an ever-tightening grip. We were mesmerised by it all, and held our breath as the dance suddenly gave way to a moment of release from the winds sudden ascent through a brief silence, and a sudden collapse of the music via a final orchestral chord.

I confess to all but forgetting about the screen backdrop images during these latter sequences – they must have been sufficiently “of a piece” with the music , even if the musicians’ stunning realisation of these sounds had obviously captivated me at that stage to the extent where my reaction to any query about them would have been “What images?” The shade of Stravinsky himself would, I’m sure, have purred with pleasure at the thought of the orchestra that was “his” for a few magical moments in the Wellington Town Hall sixty years ago (see the video link below) tackling his music here with such elan, confidence and splendour.



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