Costumes and set design from the original production of “The Rite of Spring” (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) concluded its 35th anniversary season with a diverse and challenging survey of modernist approaches. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the music that Igor Stravinsky wrote for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” The premiere performance of this ballet in 1913 has become a milestone in music history by virtue of the riot that began to brew with the opening sounds of the high-register bassoon and quickly boiled over into violent argument.
The score is a heady brew of disorienting rhythms, massive instrumentation, and aggressive dissonances brought on by the superposition of multiple domains of activity all barreling ahead with full force. Now over 100 years old, the score is still a challenging one for any professional ensemble, making yesterday all the more impressive for Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif to have selected it as the capstone of the SFSYO season. The shock value may have lost its edge, at least when it comes to audience expectations; but doing justice to the score is still an imposing undertaking.
For the most part the ensemble was up to the task. Reif seems to have had an excellent plan for building up the full mass of the whole out of its constituent parts. Mind you, visual cues can be highly beneficial in allowing the attentive listener to appreciate just how many conflicting centers of activity can be in play with equal strength at the same time. Nevertheless, strictly at the auditory level, Reif succeeded, for the most part, in establishing and balancing all of those dissonant superpositions.
Much of the fun, however, came from appreciating just how many different types of instruments contributed to the ensemble. I was particularly impressed that the alto flute had so much to play that she did not have to divide her time between that instrument and the usual C major flute. Similarly, one could enjoy Stravinsky’s knack for providing the E-flat clarinet with some of the most rhetorically significant gestures in the score. The bass clarinet line, in turn, almost serves as a forecast for some of Eric Dolphy’s wilder jazz riffs. Then, of course, there were the two Wagner tubas taken up by two of the French horn players to account for the “Procession of the Sage” during the first part of the ballet. The fact is that, even if there were a few lapses in the basic mechanics, this was a reading of “The Rite” that could reveal fresh views of detail even to those who have heard the score many times in the past.
The other major offering on the program was György Ligeti’s “Concert românesc” (Romanian concerto). Composed in 1951, this is a very early effort from a composer that had as much impact on modernism during the second half of the twentieth century as Stravinsky had at that century’s beginning. However, “Concert românesc” was written before Ligeti started pushed the envelope (or, as I like to say, “before Ligeti started sounding like Ligeti”).
Rather, this early piece follows in the footsteps of Béla Bartók’s ability to take indigenous source material and reconceive it for concert purposes. Indeed, one can almost sense that, while working with similar sources, Ligeti had to keep himself on guard against sounding like Bartók. For the most part he succeeded, although those with a fair amount of Bartók listening experience would probably be able to pick out a familiar trope or two.
These two lively compositions were preceded by the instrumental suite that Gabriel Fauré wrote for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande. The four short pieces in this collection provided a calm before the storms that would then be summoned up by Ligeti and Stravinsky. Reif knew how to give these intimate moments just the right expressiveness through nuanced quietude. This involved some scrupulous balancing of resources, but the SFSYO players could not have responded better to Reif’s every interpretive gesture.