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“The Rite of Spring” served up 3 ways: shaken, straight up, and blended (c/o Ojai, Pacific Symphony, and UCI)

67th Ojai Music Festival - June 6, 2013 at 8:00 PM - The Bad PlusAt the opening talk of this year’s Ojai Music Festival last Thursday, Ara Guzelimien (Provost & Dean of The Julliard School and former Artistic Director of the Ojai Festival) astutely observed that The Rite of Spring has become big business.  What used to scare audiences now regularly packs houses.  With all of the buzz surrounding the 100th anniversary of the seminal work’s premiere, some at Ojai even suggested that it’s becoming over-exposed.

Please.  Justin Bieber is over-exposed.  Beyoncé is over-exposed.  Cats doing stupid things on YouTube are over-exposed.  In the classical music space, perhaps Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is over-exposed.

For my time and money, too much Sacre du Printemps is never enough — a sentiment I believe so whole-heartedly that I braved the drive between Ventura County and Orange County in order to see three very different versions of The Rite on two back-to-back nights, before eventually driving back to Ojai Saturday morning.

It’d be tough to find a more diverse set of Sacre experiences in such a short time-frame.  Vive le différence.

Here’s how it went down, care of The Bad Plus at Ojai on Thursday, followed on Friday in Costa Mesa by the Pacific Symphony and UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of Arts:

The Bad Plus shakes and swings The Rite of Spring at Ojai

The thought of re-doing The Rite for piano, bass, and drum set was so daunting, the members of The Bad Plus tried to get out of having to do it even after they agreed to the commission.

It’s a rather crazy notion, but not one completely incongruous with the sensibilities of this particular jazz trio.  In fact, I doubt anyone else could have pulled it off as successfully as they have.  One jazz-must-remain-pure critic tried to excoriate them in a review of their 2004 album, Give, but ended up being surprisingly prescient; his screed included these gems:

” . . . the piano trio that Schroeder from the Peanuts gang would eventually front in his 20s after growing up in the East Village and running into two rebellious lads who introduce him to the music of Nirvana, Aphex Twin and the Foo Fighters.

In a nutshell, it’s loud but ultimately more beholden to Beethoven than bebop, more Rachmaninov than ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’ It’s Stravinsky with a slamming backbeat-which might sound good in theory, but Iverson’s tendencies toward gooey sentimentality and rococo stylings are disconcerting, to say the least  [emphasis mine]. . . .

This album works if you truly believe that Kurt Cobain is as valid a musical influence as Miles Davis or John Coltrane.”

Bill Milkowski, Jazz Times (April 2004)

Even some at Ojai concurred and were non-plused by the band’s efforts.  “I am deeply offended that they would call what they play ‘jazz’, ” proclaimed one VIP just outside of Libbey Bowl within earshot of many others.

The Bad Plus and Ara Guzelimian, Ojai Talks (photo:  CK Dexter Haven)Rather than try to bury such so-called “criticism,” Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), and David King (drums) embrace it:  Mr. Milkowski’s full review is included in their press kit.  Moreover, during their Ojai Talk with Mr. Guzelimien, they unequivocally stated that Cobain, Davis, and Coltrane ARE equally valid musical influences, to the applause of many in the audience.  They speak with no irony or sarcasm when mentioning Sonic Youth and the Bee Gees in the same context as jazz and classical music luminaries as legitimate sources of inspiration.

Without a doubt, they refuse to be hemmed in or defined by anyone’s genre-specific expectations of them.

On top of that, Mr. Iverson spent many years as Music Director for  Mark Morris and his dance ensemble.  Given that Mr.  Morris’s depth of knowledge about music led him to be the selected as this year’s Ojai Festival Music Director, this connection is non-trivial.

So it is with all of this in mind that we got this particular rendition of The Rite of Spring.  Contrary to what one might expect from a jazz trio, this is not merely a set of variations or improvisations on themes of The Rite.  This is the complete score.

What The Bad Plus did was to re-orchestrate the piano four-hands version into one that would not only accomodate their instruments, but their style.  The trio managed to create a Sacre that was respectful of the original without being too blindly reverential of it.  All of the jagged rhythms and familiar phrases are there, but with just a hint of swing.  They allowed themselves a brief jamming epilogue to play after the “chosen one” in the original story takes her veritable musical tumble, but that the only jazz-specific nod they gave.

So what we ended up with was Stravinsky and jazz mashed together — and contrary to what Mr. Milkowski may have thought, the combination worked brilliantly.

That’s not to say that it worked absolutely perfectly for me.

  • The pre-recorded first section (aka “Introduction”) had a fascinating array of sonic effects, but while it played, they just stood there motionless, and I couldn’t help but feel a little gipped that they couldn’t have found something to play live during that part.
  • Some of the bigger moments — at least what you thought would be bigger moments, “Ritual of the Rival Tribes” from Part 1 or “Glorification of the Chosen One” from Part 2 — seemed rather subdued, like they purposely backed off for some reason.

But really, if such things are the price of getting such a welcome, thought-provoking, and viscerally-satisfying take on The Rite as given to us by The Bad Plus, then I’ll pay it every time and then some.

The Bad Plus - Made PossibleBefore offering up the Stravinsky, the trio played a short set of works from their current album, Made Possible.  I found it thoroughly enjoyable.  From the slow, Ravel’s Bolero-like crescendo of “Pound for Pound,” to the 5/4 pulse-pounding beat at the end of “Wolf Out,” to my favorite, the relentlessly swerving rhythms and melodies in “Seven Minute Mind,” you got a feel for their style. Moreover, you also could hear their connection to the genre-bending music of Lou Harrison or the chugging machinations of Terry Riley’s “In C” which populated the rest of the Ojai Festival in the days that followed after this concert.

From a technical standpoint, Messers. Anderson, Iverson, and King are three impressive musicians, each able to create a wide variety of sounds and tone colors from their respective instruments.  As you can imagine, anyone willing and able to pull-off a credible rendition of The Rite of Spring must have some serious chops, and this trio has that in spades.

Ignore The Bad Plus to your own musical detriment.

The Bad Plus (photo by Cameron Wittig)

Carl St.Clair drives the Pacific Symphony right down the middle of The Rite road

Friday night’s rendition of The Rite of Spring performed by the Pacific Symphony in Segerstrom Concert Hall couldn’t have been more different in style, but no less satisfying.

This was as straightforward a Sacre as you’re likely to hear.  Mr. St.Clair cared more about the long line as opposed to worrying about specific details in the score, though he did manage to elicit a different sonority from the woodwinds throughout the work than one typically hears.  Tempos and dynamics were never extreme, and nothing was unexpected.  Instead, conductor and orchestra let the pretty parts sound pretty and the climaxes be big without exaggerating.

After hearing so many different personalized interpretations over the past year (going back to Jacaranda earlier this year and Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the beginning of the season), the unabashedly conventional approach was refreshing.

This music may have become relatively ubiquitous, but it doesn’t make it any easier to play, and overall, the Pacific Symphony musicians acquitted themselves well. The various principals played their parts with distinction, and of particular note:  the iconic opening solo played by Principal Bassoon Rose Corrigan was achingly beautiful, Larry Kaplan’s alto flute was sultry, and Barry Perkins (Principal Trumpet) let his piccolo trumpet blast with abandon during the climaxes.  Sure, rhythms could have been a little more biting and an ensemble entrance or two was sloppy, but it was a solid performance nonetheless.

Before  intermission,  Mr. St.Clair and the orchestra gave the audience a taste of Russian ballet pre-Sacre with selections of Tchaikovsky’s music from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, plus the “Lullaby in a Storm” from Sixteen Songs for Children and the orchestral “Lullaby in the Land of Eternity” it inspired in Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss.

The excerpts from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake make regular appearances on orchestral pop concerts, but it was a rare treat to experience these works within the acoustically friendly confines of Segerstrom Concert Hall.  Mr. St.Clair took the opportunity to get thoroughly lush playing from the Pacific Symphony without letting it devolve into sappiness.  Susana Poretsky sang the Tchaikovsky lullaby with loving melancholy, and the orchestra followed suit with the excerpt from The Fairy’s Kiss.

Members of the UC Irvine Department of Dance added their expertise to the first-half festivities.  Their contributions were all loudly appreciated by the Segerstrom audience; my favorite was the dance to “Coffee” from The Nutcracker as sensually done by Karen Wing, Ryan Thomas, and Mason Trueblood.

UCI’s de-constructed “Sacre Project” puts The Rite of Spring into a blender

UCI "Sacre Project" podBefore and after each of the three concerts by the Pacific Symphony which featured the program described above, the good folks at the UCI Claire Trevor School of Arts offered their own spin on Sacre at the adjacent Samueli Theater.

The “Sacre Project” was billed as a “radically deconstructed performance event.”  I didn’t think it was all that radical, but it was certainly an intriguing and diverting — entertaining, even — performance art piece, with dancers at the forefront.

The “Project” was divided into three parts:

  • The first featured various “pods” where the dancers interacted with and amongst the various installations in quirky ways, all while the audience was encouraged to explore the whole space and move from pod to pod.  Every few minutes, an electronic version of the first few bars of the opening bassoon solo from The Rite played (imagine if that musical phrase were your door bell chimes, and you get the idea), and the dancers shifted to different pods.
  • This went on for a few iterations until Part 2 began, with the pods shutting down, a different set of dancers joining in the fun, and attention was focused to the circular stage in the center of the theater.  At this point, a recorded track playing a filtered version of the piano four-hands version of The Rite began playing in the background.   Audience members were still encouraged to stand about and watch the stage from close up, while dancers dashed between and around them from time to time.
  • Eventually, some of the dancers brought out folding chairs, strongly suggesting non-verbally that most of the audience use them.  Part 3 then began, which turned out to be a mostly straightforward choreographed dance of the selection of the Chosen One and her/his ultimate demise. . . . Yes, that’s right, I said “her/his.”  There were two differences to this dance vs. a typical ballet of Sacre:  first, there were a couple of men interspersed among the group of sacrificial virgins; second, all the dancers learned the choreography of “the Chosen One,” but it wasn’t until a spotlight singled one of them out did they know exactly which of them would be, well, chosen.  This was a nice touch and added a bit of dramatic tension to the moment.

The whole experience lasted about 40 minutes.  I’m sure many of the people who came to see the musical performance of The Rite of Spring had never seen it actually danced before in any guise, so this certainly provided an opportunity that the audience may not have otherwise had, rounding out their overall Sacre experience.

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of young people — little children, not just teenagers and college students —  who were present.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how many people of various age were taking pictures and video, using everything from smart phones to professional DSLRs, without any concerns being expressed by the theater staff that this was going on. You might expect such a thing at a smaller venue, but it is still a rarity for a performance that was part of a broader, professionally staged performance.  It added to the 21st Century feel to the event, and never distracted from any of the performance.   If any part of the experience was truly radical, that may have been it.

I’ll be posting my own photos and video from my visit to through the “Sacre Project,” and will post them in the next day or so.  Stay tuned.

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