published Thursday, April 24th, 2014

CSO Review: Symphony brings 'Rite of Spring' to life

By Mel Wilhoit

On May 29, 1913, a musical meteor hit Europe and set off shockwaves that changed the course of music forever.

That meteor was Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral music for the ballet, “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps), and it ushered in the era of modern music. As no self-respecting orchestra would fail to program this seminal work in its centennial year, the Chattanooga Symphony joined a long list of distinguished ensembles to bring the work to life (even if a bit tardily) on Thursday evening at the Tivoli Theater. Led by Music Director Kayoko Dan, the Chattanooga Symphony concluded its Masterworks Series for the season with an all-Russian program.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was a creative type who was unfortunate enough to live under the repressive Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union during midcentury. From time to time, his composing style didn’t seem to meet the Communist demands of “Socialist Realism” and he was denounced in the press and had to undergo humiliating, public penance on more than one occasion.

Things got a little better under Nikita Khrushchev, giving Shostakovich more creative breathing room.

Part of his output during this period included “Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107” (1959) which scored an immediate success. It contains a mix of the composer’s often stark, brooding, and propulsive music, performed on Thursday by guest artist Wesley Baldwin. Baldwin boasts an impressive resume of solo, chamber, and orchestral playing as well as recording, and his varied teaching career presently finds him as a professor of music at UT, Knoxville.

The concerto contains four movements (rather than the normal three) with the composer embedding his musical signature (the notes D, E-flat, C, B) in the opening and closing movements. The work is clearly demanding for both the performer and the listener. The first movement is pungent and full of demanding multiple-stops (playing on more than 1 string at a time). The second alternates poignant timbres and eerie melodies created by harmonics (touching the string lightly and producing a high, steely sound). The third is a challenging solo cadenza, and the fourth is a frenzied and frenetic ride. The entire work is full of tension, almost singularly unrelieved by melodic appeal.

Baldwin performed the work impressively, seemingly at ease with the arduous requirements of the score. Like many somewhat modern works, it would probably benefit from repeated hearings. And that is possible as it will be repeated on Sunday at the Volkswagen Series in the Volkswagen Conference Center. The work may also have benefited from the employment of larger orchestral forces needed to provide a bigger contrast to the soloist. Nevertheless, the CSO should be applauded for programming a fairly new and stimulating work.

That applause was certainly forthcoming for the featured work of the evening as, after the Intermission, patrons were treated to a first for Chattanooga, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” While most classical music buffs are familiar with this landmark work in its audio form — hearing it on a recording or in the concert hall — it was originally designed to accompany a visual experience — the ballet.

To an extent, Stravinsky’s score can be likened to film music that enhances and underscores the visual element of the movie — the story. The story for the ballet depicts ancient, pagan Russia and the annual ritual (rite) of sacrificing a young woman (“Chosen One”) to appease the gods of spring. To that end, the composer wrote music in a style called Primitivism that engenders a primeval feeling, driven by complex, asymmetrical, thrusting rhythms. Oddly enough, this highly complex piece of modern music became known to millions via its inclusion in Disney’s 1940 animated movie, “Fantasia.”

“Rite of Spring” is an extremely complex and fragmented work, possessing all the qualities that make a convincing performance nigh on impossible. But that hardly stopped or even slowed the CSO Thursday evening as Maestro Kayoko Dan and her hugely augmented forces of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion offered a stellar performance of this seminal work.

From the outset, the group’s ensemble was impressively tight, making all those orchestral jabs clean and potent. There’s very little melody in the half-hour work, but Dan shaped this sprawling composition into an intelligent and exciting experience that held audience members transfixed. Intonation, articulation, nuance, spirited playing — it was all there. The orchestra members themselves must be singled out for the first-rate work, individually and as a group, that brilliantly showcased both the technical skill and musical maturity of the local musical ensemble.

Within the last week-and-a-half, Chattanooga has experienced the performance of two landmark works, Bach’s “B Minor Mass” by the Chattanooga Bach Choir and now Stravinsky’s monumental “Le Sacre du Printemps.” Although the general health of Chattanooga’s citizens has recently been questioned, its musical well-being seems to be “fit as a fiddle.”

Bravo to the CSO for an amazing season finale.

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