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Dudamel Opens the 2016–2017 Season

The dynamic Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela open the 2016–2017 season with selected music for dance. The program includes Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which invoked riots when it premiered in 1913. As Dudamel puts it, “Spring reflects a new beginning, something important to young people. I've known Le sacre since my first concert as a thirteen-year-old violinist in my hometown orchestra. Now it’s also an important piece for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. We first played it in 2009 in London, Madrid, Lisbon and, of course, several times in Venezuela. This orchestra simply have these rhythms in their blood—they even make one passage sound like heavy metal.”

Read more about Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and watch Gustavo Dudamel discuss opening Carnegie Hall’s 2016–2017 season. Learn more about Opening Night with Gustavo Dudamel and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

Primitive Sophistication

“Primitive with every modern convenience.” That’s how Claude Debussy described Le sacre du Printemps in an ironic form of praise that perfectly sums up the conjunction of primitivism and the modernism in Stravinsky’s revolutionary score. The original ballet conception involved the pagan sacrifice of a young girl to the ancient god of spring—a spring, in Lawrence Gilman’s words, “as it was before there were Spring poets and Corot landscapes and the bleatings of young love.” But the music itself, with its enormous sophistication and complexity, was utterly new.


Modernist Landmark

Le sacre, in fact, is arguably the landmark of 20th-century modern music. Although atonal and polytonal works by Schoenberg, Webern, and Ives (not to mention long stretches of The Firebird and Pétrouchka) preceded Le sacre, nothing else had as much influence, notoriety, and sheer sensational impact. Stravinsky partisans viewed the work as nothing less than a new art form; horrified detractors saw it as the destruction of music as an art altogether. Le sacre was to music as Joyce’s Ulysses was to fiction and Eliot’s The Waste Land was to poetry: Nothing could ever be quite the same after it.

Riots and Cheers

The New York Times reported the sensational premiere.

The 1913 Paris premiere for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was probably the most raucous in musical history, noisier even than the music itself. Stravinsky recalled that “mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning”; during the first scene, “the storm broke … I left the hall in a rage.” By the end, with shouts, jeers, cheers, and bodily blows being exchanged throughout the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the Paris riot police were called in. Pierre Monteux continued conducting to music that could barely be heard: “I kept my eyes on the score, playing the exact tempo Igor had given me and which, I must say, I have never forgotten. As you know, the public reacted in a scandalous manner.” In Stravinsky’s words, Diaghilev kept “switching the house lights on and off in the hope that this might quiet the hall,” while choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky “stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.”

The next year, Stravinsky heard Monteux conduct the score as a concert piece to a crowd of young people, an altogether different experience: At the end, recalled Stravinsky, “the entire audience stood up and cheered. I came on stage and hugged Monteux, who was a river of perspiration—it was the saltiest hug of my life. A crowd swept backstage. I was hoisted to anonymous shoulders and carried.” Later, Stravinsky decided that he preferred Le sacre as a concert piece, undermining the elaborate “pagan” program with the famous quip that the music is “architectonic, not anecdotal.”

About the Music

Le sacre certainly needs no ballet scenarios, which almost invariably pale beside what the music ignites in our imagination. Its sheer visceral power is spellbinding. As has been frequently pointed out, it restored the primacy of rhythm to music and changed, in the words of the late Pierre Boulez, “the direction of rhythmic impulse.” Its violent, continually shifting pulsation carried a charge (many say a sexual one) never before felt in Western concert music and that still, when performed with full ferocity, sounds avant-garde. “Nothing can dilute,” said Boulez, its “tension and rhythmic life.” Combined with Stravinsky’s densely polytonal harmonies and hallucinated colors, this pulse is like an elemental force, a tornado of energy.

Vision vs. Tradition

According to Stravinsky, Le sacre is much less tied to tradition than other “revolutionary” works of the period. Unlike Berg and Webern, who “were supported by a great tradition,” Stravinsky was “guided by no system whatsoever … I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard.” The piece was inspired by a “fleeting vision” of a young girl dancing herself to death during a savage rite. According to Richard Taruskin, however, Stravinsky was actually steeped in his own tradition—that of Russian folklore and poetry—and his dream vision was rather typical: “This was by no means an unusual sort of dream for a creative artist to have in St. Petersburg in 1910.” Still, no one in that period transmitted such a dream into anything remotely like Le sacre du printemps.

Gustavo Dudamel
Thursday, October 6 at 7 PM
Carnegie Hall's Opening Night Gala Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

The dynamic Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela open Carnegie Hall’s 2016–2017 season with selected music for dance. Ravel’s La valse, commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, is a lushly scored waltz that morphs into a whirling dance of death. There was a riot when Le sacre du printemps, also commissioned by Diaghilev, premiered in 1913, but the savage rhythms and startling dissonance that pushed that audience to fury now drives audiences to their feet as they spontaneously stand and cheer this undisputed 20th-century masterpiece. This is a gala evening you will never forget.

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