'The Rite of Spring' coming to Williams College this weekend



One hundred years after the shock wave of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" first swept through the world, it will rattle the sheltered halls of Williams College this weekend.

The departments of music, theater and dance will collaborate in a program built around a performance of the revolutionary ballet score. In each of three presentations, a lecture and dance demonstration with film clips will precede a performance of the 35-minute score by the Berkshire Symphony.

The program is one of many across the music world celebrating the centennial of the riot-torn world premiere in Paris on May 29, 1913. Composers ever since have been grappling with the implications of the work, with its tale of human sacrifice.

"Le Sacre du Printemps" -- to give it its original title -- was "the prize bull that inseminated the whole modern movement," according to Robert Craft, Stravinsky's longtime assistant.

Williams music department chairman W. Anthony Sheppard, who will give the introductory lecture, frames the piece more modestly but with a broader emphasis.

In his talk, he'll focus on "what about the music makes it still unexpected and exciting to listen to, even for someone like myself who's been listening to it since I was 13 years old, and can almost sing along with the entire piece."

"We often think of it as an aggressive or even sometimes brutal work," he added in a phone interview, "but there are actually many passages that are beautiful and mysterious and evocative, very different

from the more aggressive parts that people tend to remember."

The three identical programs will take place in the college's ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance tonight at 8 and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. The Berkshire Symphony will be conducted by director Ronald Feldman.

Three excerpts from new choreography by Williams dance teachers Erica Dankmeyer, Nia Love and Janine Parker will be premiered by CoDa, the college's contemporary dance ensemble. Elizabeth Wright and Doris Stevenson will play Stravinsky's two-piano version as accompaniment. The same artists will premiere the full choreography in May.

The performances will hint at the riot that broke out in the audience at the world premiere. The uproar greeted Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Instead of the gracefulness of classical ballet, or even Stravinsky's two previous Diaghilev ballets, "Firebird" and "Petrushka" -- both folk-based like "The Rite" -- Nijinsky's movements consisted of "ugly earthbound lurching and stomping," according to Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin.

"Once the whistlers and hooters got going," Taruskin writes, "nobody even heard the music. Most of the reviewers paid no attention to Stravinsky beyond naming him as the composer before turning with gusto to the weird antics onstage and the weirder ones in the hall."

The next year, Pierre Monteux, who conducted at the premiere, gave the first concert performance of the score. It was a success.

Nevertheless, music would never be the same. Stravinsky himself could go no further. He branched off afterward into spare, neoclassical works like "The Soldier's Story."

There have been many later choreographies, beginning with one for Diaghilev by Leonid Massine to replace the Nijinsky fiasco. More recently, the Joffrey Ballet has made the work a staple, employing a reconstruction of the Nijinsky. But probably the most famous later use is in the dinosaur ballet in "Fantasia."

Sheppard plans to discuss the music's use in "Fantasia," other films and -- if only by influence -- a whole range of 20th-century operas and concert works. His prime example will be John Adams' opera "Nixon in China," which quotes Stravinsky's "Augurs of Spring" section.

"Really," Sheppard said, ‘The Rite of Spring' has popped up in many unexpected places throughout the last hundred years, in both classical music and popular music, and film." He'll also compare the Nijinsky and Williams choreographies, with film clips to illustrate.

The original score calls for a monster orchestra, including eight timpani, eight horns, four oboes and two contrabassoons, "that would never fit in a ballet pit," according to conductor Feldman. For many years, the complexities of rhythm, meter, tonality and dissonance made the work all but unplayable even by professional orchestras.

Feldman will lead his mixed student-professional orchestra in the entire score but use a version with reduced instrumentation.

It was prepared by Boston Ballet conductor Jonathan McPhee to accommodate limited performance space and save money.

"Even though we are not performing ‘The Rite' with dancers, we still couldn't fit the original orchestration on the ‘62 Center stage," Feldman said.

Sheppard credits Feldman with coming up with the idea of the centennial observance. He said this will be the first collaboration of the three performing-arts departments.

The project also has an educational component. Since last fall, Sheppard and Feldman have taught courses that focused on the music. The dance department offered a course leading to creation of the new choreography.

"Once people knew this was going to happen," Sheppard said, "it definitely shaped what courses we were offering and what we did in some of our classes."

In performance: 'The Rite of Spring'

What: "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky

Who: Berkshire Symphony, Ronald Feldman, conductor; pianists Elizabeth Wright and Doris Stevenson; CoDa in choreography by Erica Dankmeyer, Nia Love and Janine Parker; Prof. W. Anthony Sheppard, chairman, Williams Colege music department

When: Tonight 8; Saturday 3 and 8 p.m.

Where: ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, MainStage, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown

Admission: Free


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