This Wednesday (May 29) will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of “Le Sacre du printemps” (the rite of spring) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. The choreography was by Diaghilev’s leading male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky; but today the ballet is best remembered for its score by Igor Stravinsky. If we are to believe Stravinsky’s autobiography (a medium-sized “if,” if not a big one), that music provoked a riot in the audience that begin with its opening measures of a bassoon playing solo in an unusually high register. Thus was born the best-known success de scandale of the twentieth century, making Stravinsky’s score his most famous (and probably most performed) composition.
In honor of this centennial occasion, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas have prepared a two-program series of concerts in which Stravinsky’s ballet score will be performed in the second half of each program.
The first program will situate the score in a prospective context, providing two representative examples of how Stravinsky’s thinking progressed after that pivotal evening in 1913. One of these, his D major violin concerto, was composed while he was living in France in 1931, although it received its first performance in Berlin with the young violinist Samuel Dushkin as soloist. This concerto is representative of Stravinsky’s so-called “neoclassical” period; and its four movements all reflect on classical forms. The two inner movements are both labeled “Aria;” they are preceded by a toccata and followed by a capriccio. Gil Shaham will be the soloist on this program. The other prospective selection will be Stravinsky’s score for George Balanchine’s abstract ballet “Agon,” probably the ballet in which Balanchine and Stravinsky collaborated most closely, which was first performed in 1957. Many of the movements in this score are named for classical and pre-classical dance forms; but the music itself demonstrates Stravinsky’s interest in experimenting with Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone approach. It is worth noting that Balanchine also created choreography for the violin concerto. In fact he did so twice, first in 1941 for the so-called Original Ballet Russe founded by Colonel Wassily de Basil and René Blum and again in 1972 for a Stravinsky Festival series of programs by his own New York City Ballet.
The second program will situate the performance of the score for “Le Sacre du printemps” in the context of its Russian roots. This will include the presentation of a representative selection of Russian folk songs by the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. Many of the themes in Stravinsky’s ballet score have folk origins, and the Wikipedia page for this composition devotes a paragraph to discussing those sources (with a generous supply of reinforcing footnotes). The Ensemble will also perform Stravinsky’s elaborate depiction of a Russian wedding, “Les noces,” scored for chorus, four vocal soloists, four pianists, and four percussionists. This was composed for a ballet choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister and later his biographer), first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923.
The first program will receive two performances in Davies Symphony Hall. These will be given at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19, and at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 20. Ticket prices range from $34 to $156. Tickets may be purchased through an event page on the SFS Web site. They may also be purchased at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street or by calling 415-864-6000. The Inside Music pre-concert talk will be given by James Keller one hour prior to each concert. This event is free to all ticket-holders; and the doors open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Finally, a free “Program Notes” podcast about “Le Sacre du printemps” hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone has been embedded into the event page.
In addition, there will be a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal of this first program. This will take place in Davies at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 19, lasting approximately one hour and 30 minutes. General admission is $22. Reserved seating is available in the Loge, Boxes, and Premiere Orchestra for $40. This rehearsal has its own event page, through which tickets may be purchased online.
The second program will receive two performances in Davies at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 21, and at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 22. Ticket prices range from $15 to $150. Tickets may be purchased through an event page on the SFS Web site or at the Box Office. The Inside Music pre-concert talk will be given by Laura Stanfield Prichard one hour prior to each concert.
Finally, SFS Media has put out its first Blu-ray release, which includes a background documentary about “Le Sacre du printemps,” which aired on PBS during the 2006 Keeping Score series, along with a complete performance of both the full score and selections from Stravinsky’s early “Firebird” ballet. Both the original DVD and the Blu-ray versions are available for purchase through a product page in the Symphony Store Web site. The DVD is also available for purchase from Amazon.com, but the Blu-ray version will not go out for general distribution until July 9. However, there is currently an Amazon.com page that will process pre-orders.