It was 100 years ago this month that the Rite of Spring had its infamous premiere in Paris. As the lore and legend goes, the ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky caused a riot.
"The music was very loud, Nijinsky had to scream the counts to the dancers from the wings and people were throwing things into the pit," said Tito Muñoz, reading from the New York Times review of the Ballets Russes performance on May 29, 1913.
The scene should be a bit calmer when guest conductor Muñoz leads the Florida Orchestra in the daring Stravinsky masterpiece that revolutionized Western music. What was shockingly new and edgy a century ago is now almost routine — thanks, in part, to its starring role in Disney's animated classic Fantasia — though the work is always a special occasion for any orchestra by virtue of its size alone.
In the orchestra's two season-ending performances next weekend, there will be 99 players on stage, including five each in the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon sections. Also two Wagner tubas, joining the other seven horn players, plus two regular tuba players, five trumpets and a bass trumpet.
So Rite of Spring is huge. But what most impressed Muñoz the first time he looked at the score was its riotous rhythms, the constantly changing time signatures. He was in high school and working as a clerk in a sheet music store across the street from Carnegie Hall in New York.
"I remember going into the orchestral section and pulling out a score and opening it up," he said. "My mind was blown. I'd never seen anything like that written down on paper, how complicated the rhythms were."
Muñoz, 29, who grew up in Queens, will be conducting Stravinsky's score for the first time in its full orchestration, though he brings some interesting previous experience with the music. In 2011, he conducted a staging of the ballet at the Opera National de Lorraine, the company in Nancy, France, for which he is music director.
"I conducted a reduction in France because we couldn't fit everyone in the pit," he said. "In Florida, it's going to massive. The sound will be big."
Originally, when Muñoz inherited the orchestra's season finale from Stefan Sanderling, who made an early exit as music director, Rite of Spring wasn't on the program (Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony was the centerpiece). "When they asked me to do this week, I thought, 'My God, this is it. The 100th anniversary. We've got to do this,' " he said.
The following week Muñoz will conduct the work again with the Rochester Philharmonic, and then in August, he will conduct performances by the Joffrey Ballet with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio.
Muñoz has listened to a lot of recordings of Rite of Spring, including an early one conducted by Stravinsky himself ("He was not the clearest conductor") and another by Pierre Monteux, the Frenchman who conducted the ballet's premiere. Monteux was a teacher of David Zinman, the American conductor who was one of Muñoz's teachers.
"Monteux had a very grounded presence on the podium," Muñoz said. "His technique was very efficient, very clear. That can be very comforting for musicians, especially in a piece like this."
One of the famous Rite of Spring recordings, from 1958 by the New York Philharmonic under music director Leonard Bernstein, was recently rereleased in a newly remastered version by Sony Classical. It's a sumptuous, exciting affair, but there's an interesting footnote to the performance that can be seen by taking a look at Bernstein's conducting scores that are available online at the Philharmonic's digital archive.
All his life Bernstein used the version of his mentor, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. Because Koussevitzky had trouble with the tricky rhythms in the score, especially the final movement's Sacrificial Dance, in which a virgin dances herself to death, he had the great musical polymath Nicolas Slonimsky re-bar it for him so he could beat time at, say, a steady 4/4 tempo instead of the constantly changing meters, as in, for example, a stretch of successive bars of 3/16, 2/8, 1/16, 4/8 and so on. Slonimsky's shortcuts are clearly marked in lines from the top to the bottom of the score.
"Nowadays, everyone conducts it the way Stravinsky wrote it," Muñoz said. "The players learn it that way too. Once you learn it the way Stravinsky wrote it, it makes sense. Fifty or 60 years ago, orchestras had trouble with the score. Now they can play it in their sleep."
A fascinating new recording of Rite of Spring is of a solo piano version, transcribed and played by Jon Kimura Parker. That Stravinsky's complex score can somehow be represented with just 10 fingers is impressive enough, but Parker's performance is also compulsively listenable. It reveals things you don't hear in the orchestration.
"Most of the fast sections, like the Sacrificial Dance, come through with a rhythmic bite that is difficult for an orchestra to do because there are simply too many players," Parker said. "I liken it to comparing a black and white sketch and a color painting. Despite the absence of color, a black and white image can be graphically more striking."
Parker, who began working on his Rite of Spring reduction seven years ago, has performed it in Seattle, Toronto and elsewhere. On one level, it makes a lot of sense because Stravinsky composed at the piano, and certain parts of his score lie comfortably under two hands, such as the driving chords — the Augurs of Spring — near the beginning.
"I feel that when you hear it at the piano it's a very direct and personal experience," Parker said. "In a way, the piece actually sounds more modern, because sometimes the colors of the instruments can mask the highlights. And then there is just the attitude of the music, like in the Game of Abduction section, which is so fierce and swirling and exciting. There is an incredible joy I get in playing it."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.