Ritual Scenes of Pagan Russia Come To Little Rock

Sep 22, 2013

Igor Stravinsky
Credit Wikipedia / Wikipedia

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra took the stage at Robinson Center Saturday night at about twice its normal size. Two Wagner tubas, double timpani, an extended percussion section, bass trumpet and other exotic instruments were all added for this heavy-hitting first concert in the ASO’s 2013-2014 Masterworks series.

By all accounts, the stage was set for Russian extravagance and festivities, as well as (also Russian) scenes of brutal pagan rituals portrayed in Stravinsky’s ground breaking and controversial ballet, 'The Rite of Spring.' 

After a full chorus of the National Anthem (just to prove we were not, in fact, at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater), the show began with the winds in a game of tag with the violins for the main theme of Shostakovich’s ‘Festival Overture.’ The strings deserved special applause, I thought, and the resonances of their performance last season of the composer’s Tenth Symphony could still be felt. Percussive explosions and the brightness of the melodic passages made this little piece the right choice for an opener. 

Martina Filjak then entered the hall in a white and partially sequined dress. The boldness of the opening chordal passage of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, rising against the full melody in the background, surprised the audience. But it was too much, as the violins – the most important element there – could hardly be heard.

Filjak could have been playing for Carnegie Hall, or the Vienna Opera House, or even the Grand Canyon, but it was a bit overwhelming here. Nevertheless, the orchestra was on point.

Tchaikovsky often relied on a heavy trombone section, and this reliance was well suited to the ASO’s section and their performance. Ours played with menacing rasps and echoes of foreboding. These elements of trepidation were assuaged lovingly, though, with a kind of lullaby in the soloist’s soft passages. Filjak played along with muted strings, in dynamics and a sensitivity wonderfully suited to the part. These bits were reminiscent of the tenderness (and also fragility) of Chopin.

That sense of fragility was confirmed by the sudden and abrupt fortissimo tutti. Perhaps these episodes indicate that the dramatics and emotional pyrotechnics of the performance took away from the melodic content, which is sometimes difficult to do, given the masterful balance Tchaikovsky always has between the two. That feeling of emotionality was emboldened in the end by a Russian dance that stimulated the feet, more so than the inner voice.

Stravinsky's ‘Rite of Spring’ delivered a different kind of emotionality, the original performance of which a century ago ultimately killed a young dancer in an on-stage frenzy and caused an off-stage riot.

If you have never been to a concert performed by a live symphony orchestra, this should be your first. The depiction of ‘dawn,’ with birdcalls that announce the entrance of the tribespeople, raised the curtain for the infamous contorted dances of the young girls, a theme played by a savage rhythm over an atonal block-chord. A Dionysian abduction followed, and the tribespeoples’ war with their neighbors, which did not miss a single beat or tone color. Conflicts with nature sorted themselves out by the agreement to a sacrifice, and a poor girl danced herself to death, against her will, begging her captors for mercy. And there was no mercy in this performance, with sounds I haven’t heard (both in volume and in quality) in the Robinson Center before. The intensity of “Spring Rounds” and the very Russian “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” is still very fresh in my mind. I would recommend this performance.

The final show is scheduled for 3p.m. Sunday.