Williams College's 'Rite of Spring' evokes volatile times


WILLIAMSTOWN - Williams College survived a riot. It took Diaghilev to put it down.

Well, not a real riot and not a real Serge Diaghilev. Drama students, aided by some recruits from the audience, staged the make-believe uproar to recall the real one that greeted the world premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" under the impresario's aegis in Paris a century ago.

A Diaghilev impersonator, materializing in front of the ‘62 Center stage in evening regalia, and mimicking the real Diaghilev's plea, called for calm so the Berkshire Symphony's performance of Stravinsky's still-shocking score could continue. "Diaghilev" called the centennial observance "the riot of spring."

It's questionable whether car horns, police whistles and barking dogs were in the bedlam at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913. But this was an ambitious and admirable undertaking for the mixed student-professional orchestra and its partners from the music, dance and theater departments.

Given three times on Friday and Saturday, the program began with an introductory lecture by music department chairman W. Anthony Sheppard. (This report is based on the Saturday matinee.) The panoramic view included a demonstration of three excerpts from new choreography created by dance students and faculty.

Along the way, a film clip showed scenes from the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography. No wonder Parisians rioted.


Under director Ronald Feldman, the Berkshire Symphony waded bravely and convincingly through 35 minutes of music that was considered unplayable even by professional orchestras when it was new. The performance had its hectic and hesitant moments, but it delivered what Sheppard described as "a pageant of spring in primitive Russian life."

Feldman and his players were especially good at bringing a lyrical, evocative feeling to the quieter sections that are sometimes overshadowed by the pounding, driving outbursts of orchestral fury. But there was no holding back during the savagery of such sections as "Augurs of Spring" and the closing "Sacrificial Dance." They shocked.

With film clips, Sheppard depicted the vast influence Stravinsky's score has had on such later manifestations as Disney's "Fantasia" and John Adams' opera "Nixon in China." The musical performance was also a reminder of the point.

Music composed since 1913 sometimes gives the impression that it falls into one of two categories: either music composed in the shadow of "The Rite" or music that seems to consciously avoid the shadow. Probably no other single work except Beethoven's Ninth has cast such a spell over the future.

Feldman led a version of the score using a reduced orchestra. The ‘62 Center's dry acoustics both hindered and helped the performance.

On the one hand, the instruments didn't blend well or deliver maximum volume, draining the music of some of its color. On the other hand, it was possible to hear clearly how well the players handled music of such daunting rhythmic and harmonic complexity.


Faculty members Elizabeth Wright and Doris Stevenson, playing Stravinsky's original two-piano version, accompanied the athletic dancers.

"Give the people what they want!" one of the rioters shouted. Maybe it wasn't what people want, but this program gave listeners a bold immersion anyway. Many attentive children were in the matinee audience.


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