Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Circadian String Quartet “Re-imagines” Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”

Last night in Old First Church, the Old First Concerts series presented what was probably one of the most ambitious approaches to chamber music programming. The performing ensemble was the Circadian String Quartet, consisting of violinists Sarah Wood and David Ryther, violist Omid Assadi, and cellist David Wishnia. The title of the program was The Sound and the Fury: The Rite of Spring Re-imagined, and the major work was Ryther’s transcription of the first part of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

This was clearly an ambitious undertaking, but not one beyond the realm of the imagination. If Stravinsky’s score could stand up to two jazz arrangements (The Bad Plus and Imani Winds), it can probably take anything. Besides, as Thomas Forrest Kelly observed in his book First Nights: Five Musical Premieres, while Stravinsky composed his score for a seriously massive ensemble (larger than one tends to find in an orchestra pit at the ballet), much of the score consists of instrumental solos and collections of small groups. It would not be too much of a stretch to call the music a sort-of “assembly” (perhaps like one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles) of small chamber music groups.

However, even if we accept those terms, the assembly itself is still a massive one, whose elements are balanced with that same uncanny precision we marvel at when we see of one Calder’s creations floating above our heads. To distill the entire assembly down to the capabilities of four performers is a major challenge. The results of Ryther’s rise to that challenge were variable but more satisfying than one might imagine. For one thing, both Ryther and Assadi were responsible for a few percussion instruments, a moderately small suspended gong (played by strokes with a metal rod), a tenor drum (also moderately small), and a bass drum with pedal of the sort found in a jazz drum kit. In addition, Ryther knew how to tease out the most crucial solo passages and assign them, primarily on the basis of register; and he also did justice to quite a few of those small-group passages.

The main thing that was missing was the vast dynamic range demanded by Stravinsky’s score. There is no way a string quartet is going to unleash the sorts of unbridled roars Stravinsky required, even with the assistance of a few percussion instruments. At the very least Ryther had to make some hard decisions about what would be eliminated during the process of transcription. In that respect there was only one serious sin of omission; and that did not occur until the “Dance of the Earth” that concludes the first part. After the arrhythmic jolts that introduce this wild dance, the bass clarinet introduces a passage of rising scale steps, which becomes the bass line for what may best be described as a berserk chaconne. (This begins at rehearsal number 75 in my Kalmus copy of the score.) As more steps are added to the scale, more instruments are added to performing it, until about half of the ensemble is declaiming it at the final measure. Neither the bass line nor the increasing resources made it into Ryther’s transcription; but, in all fairness, he probably realized that this was a necessary sacrifice.

For all the shortcomings, however, the ensemble’s approach to interpreting Ryther’s transcription was consistently impressive. The performance was clearly the result of passionate commitment, and the contagions of those passions had no trouble spilling off the stage into the audience area. One could recognize that the opening selection, Claude Debussy’s Opus 10 quartet in G minor, had some problems with coordinated intonation and ragged attacks; but all four performers still grasped the underlying spirit that justified this piece as an introduction to the evening. Similarly, Anton Arensky’s “Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky,” composed for string orchestra but a transcription of the middle movement of his Opus 35 string quartet in A minor, amounted to a somewhat innocuous calm before the storm that was about to break. In this case the execution was technically more satisfying, but I suspect that I was not the only one anxiously awaiting the beginning of the Stravinsky arrangement!

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