On the 100th anniversary of its scandalous premiere, Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” still sounds as fresh as it did a century ago. It is arguably the most important piece of music written in the 20th century.
Using an ensemble of handpicked Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra musicians, resident conductor John Kennedy assembled an extended collage of music linked to the “Rite,” interconnected with short passages from the ballet score itself.
It would be hard to find a contemporary composer not influenced by this assertive piece. Thursday's program, part of the Music in Time series, focused on the softer, delicate side of the “Rite,” which includes almost as much Parisian sophistication as it does primitive strains.
The concert, carefully crafted into a seamless flow of beautifully executed music, took a magnifying glass to the “Rite” and its offspring, focusing on excerpts from the first part of the ballet (“Adoration of the Earth”) that alternate with related (and at times opposing) solo and small ensemble pieces.
Stravinsky himself was represented by “Epitaphium,” a short trio for flute, clarinet and harp, and the wonderful “Three Japanese Lyrics,” a set of Haikus about spring delivered beautifully by soprano Pureum Jo. Both echoed the opening woodwind texture of the “Rite.”
Next came two of the composer's kindred spirits, Bartok and Debussy, the first one echoing Stravinsky's Eastern European, folk-inspired, rhythmic side, the latter his gentler Parisian side. Each were represented by a short piano piece, performed by Keun-A Lee.
Two string quartets set up side by side on the stage played short movements by Stravinsky and Webern. Anton Webern's music appeared as almost the opposite of Stravinsky's in terms of scale and scope. Short, sparse and light, yet crafty, inventive and capable of deep emotional impact, his pointillistic “Six Bagatelles” made use of few colors with maximum elegance and craft.
Edgard Varese was deeply influenced by Stravinsky, and at times directly quoted him. Varese thought of musical space as “open, rather than bounded,” and wrote for instruments in extreme registers and intensities, resulting in angular, obtrusive soundmass textures, that are widely imitated in sci-fi and horror film scores. “Octandre” includes sections framed by woodwind solos followed with low ostinato chords, much like the “Rite.”
Stravinsky's impact in percussion writing was presented with music by Steve Reich and Iannis Xenakis. Steve Reich points to the “Procession of the Sage,” from the “Rite”, a percussive section of layered African polyrhythms. Reich's “Music for Pieces of Wood” also based on ostinatos, syncopation and three-against-two overlapping patterns is played on five pairs of claves. John Kennedy joined the four percussionists at the front of the stage.
The concert's climactic point was Louis Andriessen, “Workers' Union,” built on fixed patterns of repeated rhythmic cells, but loosely defined pitch for unspecified ensemble of “loud” instruments (in tonight's case the whole ensemble).
The evening came to an intimate end, reminiscent of the opening of the “Rite,” with Stravinsky's “Elegy” for muted viola, a quiet, introspective sendoff, wonderfully delivered by Jocelin Pan.
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a composer and professor of music at the College of Charleston.