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​Spring is a riot in the orchestra

by John Showalter | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Music | April 12th, 2017

Even though the intention of the 2016-2017 season was to create a more “down to earth” and “personal” experience than the “blockbuster”-themed prior season, it has still been quite the adventure. Whether it was the amazing pieces of music, guest performers galore, or the return of Mr. Peter Schickele, AKA PDQ Bach, to watch his own newly commissioned work performed by his hometown orchestra, this season offered more than its share of excitement.

And now that this season draws to a close and the spring season starts to reveal itself, it is all too fitting that the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra sends things off with the (in)famous “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, “the music that started a riot” as it is billed on the advertisements for the event.

As Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra executive director Linda Boyd told me about the “pagan passion” theme of the upcoming concert, she told me a story about when she and conductor Christopher Zimmerman had first gotten to know each other several years ago. As they discussed which musical piece to perform for the spring concert, Zimmerman suggested a downbeat, almost dirge-like piece. Boyd told him that we were just getting over winter here and that he didn’t want to “finish us off” by doing that.

It is true, winter hits harder in Fargo than it does in many other places. It’s long, cold, and sometimes brutal. Given the strong impact of winter here and its subsequent effect on people’s moods, spring is kind of a big deal. As such, the music chosen for this season finale has a very primal and celebratory feel. The pieces being performed all share a Romantic emphasis on the pre-Christian, pagan era of European history, whence many artists, writers, and composers drew influence in order to escape what they saw as the stodgy puritanism that pervaded their era.

The orchestra will start off the evening with 19th century Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” Rimsky-Korsakov may be known to a lot of people not versed in classical music for his “Flight of the Bumblebee,” but the man was an important transitional figure in Russian classical music, who helped develop a distinctly Russian sound from the French, German, and Italian compositions that dominated the classical music world at the time. As such, the “Russian Easter Overture” has a distinctly Russian flair.

The second piece to be performed at the concert will be the “Dances of Galanta” by 20th century Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. Kodaly was not only a gifted composer, but also a scholar of music who was interested in the “root methods” of music, as Boyd put it. He eventually developed a world-famous system of teaching children music that would come to be known as the “Kodaly method”, which is still in use today. His “Dances of Galanta” takes its name from the region of Galanta (now modern-day Slovakia) and has an exuberant, gypsy-tinged feel and sound.

The piece sending off the evening, “The Rite of Spring” by 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, has quite the story behind it. In the beginning of the 20th century, Stravinsky had already been making a name for himself with his distinctly Russian compositions such as “The Firebird,” a ballet based on the Russian fables of the titular creature and the evil King Kashschei; and “Petroushka”, a piece which depicted the happenings of a springtime fair.

But “The Rite of Spring”? No one was ready for that.

“It’s not particularly scandalous by today’s standard,” said Boyd. “Now we just recognize it as a brilliant piece of music which was ahead of its time.” However, at its 1913 premiere in Paris, it caused an uproar. With the piece, Stravinsky set out to strip off the niceties that dominated music and choreography at the time.

The piece drew inspiration from pre-Christian Russia, a period and place we know very little about due to lack of written documentation and artifacts, leaving a lot of conjecture in the air as to their lifestyle and religious beliefs.

Conceived as a ballet, the piece follows a springtime fertility festival in pagan Russia which culminates in the selection of a maiden as a sacrificial victim, who then dances herself to death. Everything about the piece, from the abrupt changes in timing and rhythm and atonality to the unconventional dancing that substituted raw, primal dance for fancy pirouettes, and the costumes, was unlike anything that had ever been seen or heard before. Though the stories differ in their details, they all agree that the piece’s premiere at Paris, France, in 1913 was so scandalous that members of the audience actually rioted in the streets.

At the time, this damaged Stravinsky’s reputation and he hardly ever dared to be so adventurous in his musical experimentation again, but as time went on the piece became more appreciated for the great work that it was and received more performances and recognition.

By the 1940s the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios actually centered the segment concerning the evolution of prehistoric life in “Fantasia” on “The Rite of Spring.” Decades later hip hop group Beastie Boys would even sample the piece in their own music on their “Intergalactic” single, and Stravinsky’s piece receives performance in concert halls around the world.

This will be the first time that the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra has performed the piece, which is notoriously difficult, but they feel up to the task. Since there are no guest musicians at this particular concert, the Urban Overture which will be performed at the Radisson downtown with free admission on April 19 will feature several principal musicians from the orchestra performing samples of the music from the concert that weekend, as well as complimentary hors d’oeuvres. That event is geared toward younger adults, so if you’re looking for an idea for a date that Wednesday night perhaps you can introduce some culture to your evening.

Given the history of the final piece of the evening, I thought it all too important to ask Linda Boyd, “Do you think there’s going to be a riot at this performance?” “I’d be all open to it,” she chuckled. “However the spirit moves you.”

IF YOU GO

The rite of spring

Saturday, April 22, 7:30pm

Sunday April 23, 2pm

Reineke Fine Arts Center, 12th Ave N, Fargo





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