NYO Prom: The Rite

47 years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms. You can find the TV broadcast here for the next 30 days.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

(The complete BBC4 broadcast includes a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...)

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. The NYO website led me to Gertrude Stein’s curiously detailed account of the event:

We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.

As the site observes, this is hardly surprising, as she wasn’t actually there.

Supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”

I recently cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also 421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned.

Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.

Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field (more crowded, for instance, than analysis and reception history of the suites of Yanggao shawm bands since the Ming dynasty—funny, that), his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.

I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing. The ballet, of course, is even more unsettling—here’s an amazing sequence of clips, from a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography (full version here) to more recent versions:

Swan Lake it ain’t.

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.

And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade.

At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Not quite the same on radio, but here’s the concert, available for the next month (intro to Ravel with the singer’s thoughts from 15.24).

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

A fine turn of phrase

Further to my old theme of our irredeemably modern ears (and here), Simon Rattle,* on one of his early early-music outings with the Age of Enlightenment, was rehearsing Mozart with the band.

After one finely polished phrase, he stopped us and said admiringly, “Wow! I’ve been waiting all my life to hear it played like that! … Anyway, now I’ve heard it, I don’t like it—can you just play it normally, please?!”

 

*As a stammerer, I hesitate (sic) to call him Sir Simon Rattle. As in the (real) line from a waggish Radio 3 announcer:

That was Sir Simon Rattle conducting Brahms’s 4th symphony. Next week’s guest conductor is M-M-Mark Elder.

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour, Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors. It was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story.

He appears all too rarely on youtube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of spring, and Daphnis and Chloe—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s story.

Yet more conducting

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22’29”) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique: “I simply invited them to begin” and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:
“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”
Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

I didn’t get where I am today by… soon became another musos’ snowclone.

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.