Le sacre du printemps

I’ve been struggling with how to write this one in a way that is interesting and conveys how much of what is about to happen is full of awesome. But it is hard. So let me try talking about the piece first:

The Rite of Spring, is a ballet that was written by Igor Stravinsky in 1913. You might remember it as the music for the dinosaur-segment in the original Fantasia.

It is amazing, dissonant and violent music. The ballet was depicts pagan rituals in pre-Christian Russian. Having had a major success with his previous work, The Firebird (which you might know as the music in the volcano-vs-nature ending of Fantasia 2000) Stravinsky’s new work was highly anticipated.

The piece and its content was so different and controversial, that there was a riot at its first performance.

To imitate the strained sounds of unpracticed religious voices, Stravinsky uses instruments in unusual registers as well as some instruments rarely seen in orchestration: bass trumpet, alto flute, gurio, etc.

It’s hard to underscore how much of a leap forward this music was. It is incredibly harmonically advanced, with heavy use of dissonances. The idea was to convey a pagan sacrifice after-all.

It is incredibly difficult to play. This is probably the hardest standard-repertoire piece there is for orchestra. The rhythm is intricate, complex, and the meter shifts constantly. It’s one of those pieces that if you get off on a measure, there are very few points for you to pick-back up on. The solo passages are incredibly difficult. For example, the opening bassoon theme statement is some of the highest notes written for bassoon.

Basically put, the music for rite of spring is easily one of the top three landmark works of the 20th century. It changed the genre of orchestral music. Aaron Copland characterized The Rite of Spring as the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century. Its greatness is why Stokowski insisted for it to be in Fantasia.

All of that is a long introduction to this interesting point: Many professional groups can’t play this piece well and almost no amateur groups can. The conducting alone is beyond most amateur conductors. Someone like the the San Francisco Symphony can handle it well, but I never expected that in my lifetime I would have a chance to play this piece. Much less, in a group that could play it well.

It’s nice to be surprised.

The conductor of the “good” band I play for, the Ohlone Wind Orchestra located a band transcription of the work. It was in the Illinois State band archives and is an incredible transcription. It’s nearly 30 years old. Yes, it’s a beast of a piece to play: It’s been played twice in those 30 years.

This Sunday, it will be played a third time. We obtained a copy and permission to perform it. And we have been rehearsing it. Spending a double-dose of time on it. It’s as much of a bear as I expected and it’s been kicking us around hard. But we are finally getting our musical hands around it.

And that’s what this post is about. I’ll be performing it tomorrow, Sunday, May 6th, at 2pm, on the hill up in Fremont, CA. (Tickets and info here.)

You are very welcome to come and here it. We’re pairing it in a concert with a few classic band tunes (a Holst suite, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis , and R.R. Bennet’s Victory at Sea) but The Rite will take up the other half of the concert.

It’s been amazing and it’s going to be amazing. Hope I see you there!

Otherwise, have fun following that link for the SF Symphony above. They have their performance up on youtube in 4 parts.

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