July 11 & 12 2024 : Rite of Spring & Gluzman Plays Prokofiev

May 8, 2024

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 2

Igor Stravinsky, Rite of Spring

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine 

Decades before John Adams was, to quote the New York Times, “our reigning master of orchestral writing,” he was emerging from the trenches of minimalism, exploring a more playful and Technicolor version of the style. An early step in his musical evolution came in 1986, when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned him to write a piece to open a music festival in Massachusetts. The result was this kinetic, four-minute curtain-raiser, which has become one of the most-performed works in the modern repertoire. 

Adams describes the fast machine of the title in an online video. “Since I had recently taken a ride in a very fancy Italian sports car driven by a friend of mine, I had not yet recovered from that rather terrifying experience,” he recalled. “It was somewhat still on my brain when I began to think about what kind of fanfare I would write. So, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is an evocation of that experience which was both thrilling and kind of a white-knuckle anxious experience.” 

The piece opens with the steady knocking of a woodblock, which Adams calls “a rhythmic gauntlet through which the orchestra has to pass.” The brass add motoric riffs that fail to blossom into full-fledged fanfares, hemmed in by the strict woodblock pulse. “It’s only at the very end of the piece,” says Adams, “when the woodblock finally stops, that the orchestra suddenly feels free.” Mixing his transportation metaphors, Adams concludes, “It’s as if it’s the third stage of a rocket that has finally broken loose of earth’s gravity and is allowed to float. At that moment we hear the real, triumphant fanfare music in the trumpets and horns.” 

Sergei Prokofiev
Violin Concerto No. 2

In our current age of remote work and “digital nomad” lifestyles, it can be difficult to grasp the challenges that even a prominent, worldly composer like Sergei Prokofiev faced while living abroad for over 16 years. The composer had left his native Russia in 1918, settling first in the United States and then in Paris. In 1934 he was elected to honorary membership in the Academy of Music in Rome, and because of his growing fame, a group of musicians asked him to write a violin concerto for the French violinist Robert Soëtans. 

But homesickness and travel fatigue were taking a toll. “The air of foreign lands does not inspire me because I am Russian and there is nothing more harmful to me than to live in exile,” Prokofiev told a reporter in Paris in 1933. He knew full well that to move back to Russia permanently would mean altering his compositional style: the spiky, arch, and witty works that he composed in Parisian cafes would never satisfy Soviet bureaucrats who demanded an accessible, highly melodic style. Nevertheless, he moved with his wife and two children back to Moscow in 1936; his musical homecoming was the children’s piece, Peter and the Wolf

Much of Prokofiev’s transitional status can be discerned in the urbane yet charming character of the Violin Concerto No. 2. “The variety of places in which the concerto was written,” he later explained, “is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time: the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid, in December 1935.” 

The opening violin melody, somber and spiced with angular accents, suggests the influence of Russian folk tunes. It leads to a graceful second theme which is interwoven with the first as the movement develops. The second movement is a languorous serenade, with the solo violin singing over plucked strings and two clarinets; after several contrasting episodes, the roles reverse at the end and the violin accompanies the dreamlike horn theme. The rondo finale is brash and rustic, with a pair of castanets accompanying each return of the main theme. This gives the work a Spanish flavor that anticipates its premiere in Madrid, where Prokofiev was met with a standing ovation by both audience and orchestra. Later, the orchestra sent a delegation of musicians to thank him for his contribution. 

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

“Mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning,” wrote Igor Stravinsky, remembering the night of May 29, 1913, when his ballet The Rite of Spring received its notorious premiere at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. What followed was the most notorious riot in the history of the performing arts, one in which the orchestra could scarcely be heard over the hubbub of boos, hisses, catcalls, and shouted insults. 

Romola Pulszky, a Hungarian aristocrat, reported how “one beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose, and cards were exchanged between them.” Jean Cocteau remembers how “the uproar degenerated into a free fight.” For years afterwards, one composer treasured the ripped color of his shirt as a priceless relic of the audience combat.  

Though some of the alleged brawling was between protesters and supporters of the ballet, in the end, some 40 people in the glittery audience were ejected, and it scarcely mattered if, as skeptics claim, the commotion was (at least partly) a publicity stunt, planned by the creators. “Cries of ‘Ta gueule‘ [shut up] came from behind me,” Stravinsky recalled. “I left the hall in a rage. I have never again been that angry.” The composer spent the rest of the performance backstage alongside choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who tried to help the dancers keep time. 

The idea for The Rite flashed into Stravinsky’s mind in 1910, as he was finishing his ballet The Firebird. “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan, rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” Stravinsky mentioned the concept to his friend, Serge Diaghilev, who seized on the idea for a ballet. The impresario enlisted Nicholas Roerich, a painter and archeologist, who would work with Stravinsky on the scenario. Roerich examined ancient Slavic artifacts and clothing as he developed the costumes and sets. 

The score’s primitive power comes from many sources. Stravinsky adapts at least a dozen Lithuanian folk tunes, chosen for their narrow, archaic profiles. He dresses them in an imaginative orchestral pallet, from the opening bassoon solo, exposed and pushed to its highest register, to the closing Sacrificial Dance, with its seething mass of percussion sounds. Some sections are pure rhythm, as in Glorification of the Chosen One, with its jerky meter changes—5/8, 9/8, 7/8, 4/8, etc.—an effect is often likened to the fractured shapes of a cubist collage. 

Yet the most riot-triggering aspect involved Nijinsky’s lumbering, contorting, and willfully ugly evocation of pagan Russia. Stravinsky described the dancers as a group of “knock-kneed and long braided lolitas, jumping up and down.” To traditionalists, their stomping gestures and earthy poses seemed the antithesis of graceful ballet dancers. The Rite’s creators never managed to repeat the primitive thrills or the scandal that it triggered. But more than a century on, Stravinsky’s score straddles the ancient past and a modernist future. Enthrallingly complex, it speaks to our most primal instincts. 

—Brian Wise

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