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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
Arts & Music

Florida Orchestra pays tribute to riotous 'Rite'

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 24, 2013 at 01:55 PM

One hundred years ago this week, a riot broke out in Paris.

It had nothing to do with taxes or rebellion. Nobody got trampled, and they didn't burn down any buildings. No, this was a riot over art.

It was the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking “Rite of Spring'' in 1913. Many regard it as the pivotal musical event of the 20th century, one that continues to resonate, reverberate, and even ruffle feathers among today's audiences. You can decide for yourself this weekend, when the Florida Orchestra closes its season with performances in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Will “Rite'' generate a similar reaction with modern Bay area listeners?

“One thing I do know is there's always a lot of excitement every time it's performed,'' says Tito Munoz, guest conductor for the orchestra's final program. “It's special.''

Munoz should know. As a young musician aspiring to wave the baton, he studied under the acclaimed American conductor, David Zinman. It turns out that in the early 1960s Zinman just happened to be a protégé of the acclaimed French conductor, Pierre Monteaux. And it turns out that Monteaux just happened to have conducted the premiere of “Rite of Spring'' that day 100 years go.

“So I feel a real connection with the piece,'' Munoz says.

Many people attending one of this weekend's concerts will be hearing “Rite'' for the first time. Others might be familiar with it from the dinosaur scene in Disney's 1940 animated classic, “Fantasia.'' Stravinsky's primitive, pounding rhythms in some ways served as a precursor to the Minimalist movement in music, and more than one rock 'n' roll band can thank Stravinsky for his revolutionary back beat.

But really, why so much fuss?

The so-called riot at the first performance was more a reaction to the visuals, and less about the music. Stravinsky wrote “Rite'' as a ballet, the music supporting Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes production and radical choreography by the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Cast in two parts - the “Adoration of the Earth'' and “The Sacrifice'' – the ballet depicts a young woman who dances herself to death as a sacrifice.

Through a pagan dance festival, Stravinsky takes his audience from birth to death, and does it with music both simplistic and ferociously complex. Diaghilev knew he and Stravinsky had created something special, describing it as “A new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion.''

It did more than that. The well-to-do audience, with its conservative tastes, was shocked by such a scandalous rout of convention. First came the hoots and catcalls. Then spectators with more adventurous mindsets admonished those who appeared offended. Arguments ensued. A few fist fights broke out. At one point, the commotion in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees drowned out the orchestra. It was like attending a live Beatles concert: you couldn't hear the band over all the screaming. The press when nuts, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In an article describing “Rite,” Stravinsky said he wished to express the sublime uprising of nature in renewal, “the whole pantheistic uprising of the universal harvest … the obscure and immense sensation of which all things are conscious when nature renews its forms.”

From the opening bassoon solo in its highest register, each instrument emerges, “like a bud which grows on the bard of an aged tree.” The music shifts meter with nearly every measure, a series of stop-and-go tempos, silences and dramatic eruptions.

The music itself was unlike anything that came before it. For nearly a century, composers had been turning inward, writing works of romantic and intellectual longing. “Rite'' took a new direction, celebrating the raw, the physical, the elemental. The music is primitive and savage, with rhythms so sharp they nearly cut the flesh.

Not surprisingly, “Rite” is a watershed piece that set the music of the 20th century in motion, notes the critic Alan Rich: “It remains his supreme score, most of all for the sheer arrogance that enabled its creation. It stands, beside Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Beethoven's 'Eroica,' as one of the truly brave, inexplicable forward steps in the arts.”

Even if you omit the visual ballet, Munoz says, the music stands on its own. It doesn't need a “program'' with dancers, scenery or a storyline to be convincing.

“It's very powerful,'' says Munoz, a native of Queens. “And it's very difficult to play.''

The music's first five minutes are critical. The off-beat, agitated rhythms that begin the work and propel it forward must be carefully coordinated by the orchestra. Precision is paramount. “It's hard for an orchestra to 'get it' at the onset, but once they do, the music plays itself,'' he says. “The rhythms just take off and go on their own.''

Munoz has been in Tampa for several weeks, rehearsing and getting to know the Florida Orchestra. He praised the group for its accomplishments this season, including a cultural exchange program with the Cuban government, which now appears to be an ongoing commitment. Through at least 2015, Cuban musicians will come to Tampa to study and perform, and musicians of the Florida Orchestra will visit Havana.

Next season might be even more exciting, especially for the 30-year-old conductor. With music director Stephan Sanderling leaving his post, the orchestra seeks new leadership at the podium. What if they like Munoz?

“I guest conduct all over the country, and I love the Florida Orchestra,'' he says. “The musicians are fantastic. If they offered the post of music director to me, I'd definitely consider taking it.''

When And Where: 8 p.m. Friday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, 400 Third St. S., St. Petersburg

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