MSO: The Rite of Spring – Stravinsky Double Bill

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Published: 25th July, 2019
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The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra continues to go from strength to strength under chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis. The range of repertoire we are experiencing is wonderful. This concert continued to take us into some daring and heroic territory.

Contrast in compositional styles within a single composer is rarely more extreme than in the two works presented here. This made for a most revealing glimpse into Stravinsky’s progression and change in approach through time.

Perséphone was written during Stravinsky’s neo-classical period on a text by Andre Gide, who had provided a retelling of the story from classical antiquity. Among other evocations of earlier styles of music, it was fascinating to listen to Stravinsky’s modern harmonic language draped over formal structures and symmetrical phrasing of a kind that Haydn or Mozart would recognise. This technique gave a contrasting foil for the emotionally driven text to play against.

Set for a diseuse – an actor who performs a text to a musical setting rather than singing it in the conventional sense, mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean played the role of Narrator/Perséphone, with intensity and focus from the first note of the setting to the last. Her French was beautifully clear, her emotional connection with the text exemplary. Tenor Paul Groves seemed effortless in his delivery of the challenges of the piece, maintaining a disciplined lightness of line that floated above the huge ensemble. The background against which this is set calls for massive forces – the orchestra augmented from its usual number and calling for the full resources of The Australian Girls Choir, The National Boys Choir of Australia and the Melbourne Symphony Chorus. With such masses performing at such a high level, the effect was ravishing.

The piece is not well known, and given the forces required any performance is quite an undertaking, but I found my appetite whetted – I want to see it staged now. The glimpses of stagings available online are tantalising.

The famous Rite of Spring conjured every bit of the drama we expected. In fact, the orchestra’s relish in presenting the work was apparent throughout from the opening eroticism of the sinuous melodies to the raw power of the rhythmic assaults. The range of orchestral colours seemed heightened, and the precision and energy of attack was first rate throughout.

The Rite of Spring is such an influential work on our culture. We can only marvel at stories of the ballet’s initial impact, and perhaps appreciate the shock value by comparing it with what else was heard in theatres and concert halls in 1913. But the extent that time has burnished and enriched the work is now inescapable. Today there is an enormous list of composers who owe so much to Stravinsky, and to this work in particular. My partner and I at dinner afterward found ourselves humming various excerpts and naming the composers who had drawn from this source. We recognise the elementary essences that have fed film composers for generations now – not so much that they have fed on its corpse as on a magic pudding that keeps on giving.

Mention must be made of the pre-concert talk given by associate conductor Tianyi Lu prior to the event. About a hundred people availed themselves of the chance to deepen their appreciation of what they were about to hear. Knowledge of arcane language of musicology was not at all necessary – the information given and demonstrations of excerpts and characteristics was completely approachable by anyone with ears to listen. While Gordon Kerry’s printed program notes – as usual with the MSO – provide excellent historical and reception context, Ms Lu’s presentation focused on what we were listening for, and her enthusiasm and love for the works was utterly infectious.

In all, this was a most satisfying presentation – a towering giant in the canon, and a rarely heard work to make us listen anew, and all performed so very well.

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Peter Hurley reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Rite of Spring – Stravinsky Double Bill at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on July 20, 2019.