The programme offered unusual pairings — The Rite of Spring and Mahler; Mahler and Chinese poetry; Chinese drama and a Western orchestra—but the result was unquestionably a success. The heart of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s concert this week was Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the 1913 composition of jarring dissonances and rhythmic violence that helped usher in a new era in “classical” music. An enormous range of orchestral sounds are employed, yet few resemble those of the grand Western tradition of the nineteenth century. As the subtitle announces, these are “scenes of pagan Russia”; listeners, don’t hold your breath for lyrical tunes or the neat recapitulation of a primary theme.
Although the sounds of the Rite are still abrasive and difficult, they are (mercifully) no longer as riot-inducing as they once were. Through repeated exposure to this now-canonical piece and to music by Stravinsky’s numerous followers throughout the last century, listeners today are better able to appreciate the challenging beauty of the work.
This habituation is important because it encourages performances like that of the MSO this week. Kent Nagano, conducting with exceptional poise, took many sections a shade more slowly than customary, which allowed the orchestra’s many talented soloists to play more fluidly and expressively. Even the tensest and loudest full-ensemble moments seemed restrained. By keeping volume and tempos in check, Nagano led a well-balanced and strangely relaxed performance, inasmuch as a dissonant and heavily syncopated piece about ritualized human sacrifice could ever sound relaxed.
There were, however, a few bumps during one or two of the many difficult transitions, and at times the understated volume could have been mistaken for a lack of intensity. But in some of the fieriest sections, notably the “Danse de la terre” at the end of Part 1 and the “Danse sacrale” that closes the piece, the orchestra proved it was more than capable of conveying the Rite’s mayhem. Indeed, Nagano and the MSO made it look remarkably easy.
The Rite was bookended in the concert by pieces that were musically very different but thematically linked by reflections on nature, death and ritual. Opening the evening was Orchestral Theatre No. 1, “Xun,” a captivating work written in 1990 by the Chinese composer Tan Dun. A variety of shouts, percussive effects and other unusual timbres punctuated a slow progression of richly colourful sonorities. This is opera without words or characters, abstractly dramatic music that evokes the ritual of theatre and the theatre of ritual. Conducting from memory, Nagano led the orchestra in a convincing performance that set the proper mood for the Rite.
Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, a work full of musical and textual contrasts, occupied the second half of the program. Drunken reverie slides into somber introspection, thoughts of youth turn to thoughts of death, major drifts to minor and back. Singers Christian Gerhaher and Stuart Skelton were well supported by the orchestra, which drew once again on its strong corps of soloists.
After the first half, the throwback to tonality in the Mahler was, somewhat perversely, at first a bit unsettling, but one certainly couldn’t feel let down in any way by the concert’s ending. The baritone part, sung warmly by Gerhaher, murmured “forever . . . forever,” while in the strings an unusually impressionistic chord (for Mahler, anyway) faded away.
A wanderer at peace with the world and his own mortality, a girl dancing herself to death, a bassoonist aware of the imminent trampling of his solo—these individuals make the most of their vitality while bravely accepting their fate.
Matthew Testa completed a master’s degree in musicology at McGill in 2007. He works as a freelance editor, reviews concerts in his spare time and is an occasional host of “Jazz Euphorium” on CKUT-FM. He sometimes misses playing percussion.