THE RITE OF SPRING
Music that changed the course of history: Wagner’s Prelude and “Liebestod” (“Love-death”) opened new horizons with its yearning melody and unquenchable quicksand harmonies. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sparked a riot at its premiere with its pulse-pounding rhythms, while Debussy’s delicate colorations inspired a more subtle musical revolution.
JACQUES LACOMBE conductor (pictured)
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Classical Conversation begins one hour before the concert on June 8 (free to ticketholders).
Attend the Rites of Spring exhibit at the Gallery at 14 Maple immediately following the June 8 performance.
JACQUES LACOMBE, conductor
NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe is renowned as a remarkable conductor whose artistic integrity and rapport with orchestras have propelled him to international stature.
Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal from 2002 to 2006, he led the orchestra in more than 100 performances. He served for three years as Music Director of both orchestra and opera with the Philharmonie de Lorraine in France; he has been Music Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières since 2006.
Following the stunning Mahler 9 concerts that closed the NJSO season in June 2012, Lacombe returned to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to lead performances of Puccini’s La bohème starring Roberto Alagna and Angela Georghiu.
In the 2012–13 season, Lacombe conducts the Opéra de Nice in an all-orchestra program and leads subscription weeks with the symphony orchestras of Québec, Toledo and Montreal, the last in a program of Bernstein and Debussy with pianist Kirill Gerstein; he also makes his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut on a program featuring Branford Marsalis. He returns to the Deutsche Oper Berlin to lead Carmen.
In recent seasons, Lacombe made his debuts with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. He led Turandot and Les Contes d’Hoffmann for Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Der fliegende Holländer, Eugene Onegin, Carl Orff’s Gisei – Das Opfer, Un Ballo in Maschera, Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge and concert performances of Waltershausen’s rarely heard Oberst Chabert, all at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Oberst Chabert was released as a live CD by CPO in 2011. Lacombe led the world premiere of John Estacio’s Lillian Alling at the Vancouver Opera, where he has also led productions of Roméo and Juliette and La Traviata.
Jacques Lacombe has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Teatro Regio in Turin; given the world premiere of Vladimir Cosma’s Marius et Fanny at l’Opéra de Marseille and has led the symphony orchestras of Toronto, Vancouver, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. Abroad, he has conducted the orchestras in Nice, Toulouse and Halle, as well as with the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris, Slovakia Philharmonic, Budapest Symphony, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Victoria Orchestra Melbourne and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2013
Traditional symphonic music is noticeably absent from this season finale, which draws instead on opera and ballet. Two doomed love stories and a pagan sacrificial rite are the subject matter. In observance of the Richard Wagner bicentennial year, we begin with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from his Tristan und Isolde. Tristan was a pivotal work whose explicit eroticism shocked its first listeners. Wagner’s expanded chromaticism and resulting harmonic tensions presaged the eventual breakdown of traditional tonality.
“All three of the works we perform this weekend had a tremendous impact on music history,” Music Director Jacques Lacombe observes. “Tristan was a turning point in music. Debussy’s Concert Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring] represent the reaction to Wagner. Debussy and Stravinsky went in completely opposite directions from Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk [a total work of art].
“Of course there is a clear connection between Debussy and Stravinsky,” Lacombe continues. “Stravinsky had been working in France for several years when he composed Sacre. And its score was first heard in a Parisian salon, with Debussy and Stravinsky playing a four-hand version at the piano.”
We hear Stravinsky’s full Rite of Spring score. The Debussy concert suite was stitched together by Marius Constant, best known as the composer of “The Twilight Zone” theme music. “Basically, [Constant’s] Debussy score is a collage of interludes from Pelléas,” Lacombe explains. “Debussy wrote these fantastic symphonic transitions between scenes in the opera. For me, Debussy’s music fits in exactly the right spot in the continuum between Wagner and Stravinsky.”
Richard Wagner: Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde
Born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany
Died February 13, 1883, in Venice, Italy
Tristan und Isolde was Wagner’s giant leap into the future. Structurally, harmonically and philosophically, this opera is worlds apart from its predecessors. The plot is set into motion by a love potion that triggers an overwhelming, consuming passion between the title characters. Biographer Barry Millington refers to Tristan as “the ultimate glorification of love.” The opening and closing segments of the opera are in many ways a microcosm of the whole.
Wagner’s Prelude establishes tension with the unresolved question asked in its first notes. Indeed, the first chord we hear, seconds into the Prelude, has become known as the “Tristan chord.” It sets up a straining, a reaching for harmonic satisfaction, that symbolizes the yearning of love. Wagner presents us with feelings, rather than a medley of themes. This was a radical, revolutionary approach.
Sensuality and transfiguration
Tristan und Isolde is a celebration of sensuality. Much of the second act consists of an extended and passionate duet between the lovers that takes place after Isolde has married King Marke. Wagner’s ecstatic music raises their tryst to a metaphysical level that transcends the carnal: they have ascended to a level of love that can only exist in death. The king’s hunting party surprises the lovers, and Tristan allows himself to be wounded. At the conclusion of the opera, he expires in Isolde’s arms from the wounds he has sustained, leaving her so that the lovers may be united in eternity. Isolde’s lament, traditionally known as the “Liebestod” (“Love-Death”), fulfills her dramatic destiny.
Wagner referred to this excerpt as Isolde’s transfiguration. The composer sanctioned the pairing of the Prelude and “Liebestod” in concert performance, which makes musical sense because Isolde’s material derives from the music of the Prelude. Both segments illustrate the yearning for death as the only possible dénouement to the consummation of perfect love.
Wagner scored the Prelude for three flutes (third doubling on piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings. Timing: approximately 17 minutes.
Claude Debussy: Concert Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande
Born August 22, 1862, in St-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, in Paris
Arranged by Marius Constant
Born February 7, 1925, in Bucharest, Romania
Died May 15, 2004, in Paris, France
Claude Debussy was arguably the most literary-minded of composers. He undertook many theater works, but he completed only one opera: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). His catalyst was Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, first produced in 1893. Debussy’s opera was a succès de scandale (“success from scandal”), ignoring such 19th-century conventions as recitative and aria. Its uninterrupted flow was revolutionary, with a complex, nuanced role allotted to orchestra.
In 1981, Constant arranged this concert suite from the orchestral preludes and postludes in Debussy’s score. The opera has no independent instrumental preludes or entr’actes. Consequently, no conventional suite with independent movements is possible. Instead, Constant’s suite moves seamlessly from one interlude to the next, following the order of the scenes in the opera and thus providing a wordless microcosm of the larger work.
The concept works for several reasons. Debussy’s score tends to keep the vocal lines independent from the orchestral fabric; thus, their absence does not leave a void. Feelings are rarely stated outright in Pelléas et Mélisande; the delicately scored orchestral music reflects this veiled quality. Finally, Constant has been respectful of Debussy’s original, with minimal additions and few changes.
Symbolist drama is a far cry from the blood and thunder of Verdi or Puccini. Just as the action of Pelléas unfolds slowly, so too does Debussy’s music proceed largely at slow tempi. The principal exception is the climactic moment when Golaud comes upon the lovers and kills his brother. For the balance of this gorgeous score, liquid rhythmic patterns and shimmering orchestral solos provide seemingly unlimited variety. Even without any knowledge of Debussy’s opera, this is delicious music.
The score calls for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two harps, and strings. Timing: approximately 25 minutes.
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg
Died April 6, 1971, in New York, New York
In our judgmental and opinionated musical world, when we dislike a new composition, we express our disapproval by tightening the jaw during the performance and limiting applause at the conclusion. If we really hate it, we might stand and walk out of the hall in order to express our contempt. Booing, hissing and catcalls are bad form, and well-mannered audiences are unlikely to indulge in such socially unacceptable behavior.
Igor Stravinsky: revolutionary and iconoclast
At the premiere of The Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913—exactly 100 years ago—the Parisian audience rioted. According to Stravinsky biographer Eric Walter White:
Even during the orchestral introduction mild protests against the music could be heard. When the curtain rose the audience became exacerbated by Nijinsky’s choreography as well as Stravinsky’s music, and protests and counter-protests multiplied. At times the hubbub was so loud that the dancers could not hear the music they were supposed to be dancing to. …To those present on the first night the riot in the theatre was a traumatic experience.
Listeners who know this score from Disney’s Fantasia may wonder: why the fuss? Much of the brouhaha resulted from the subject matter. In his 1936 autobiography, Stravinsky recalled:
I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du printemps. I must confess that this vision made a deep impression on me, and I at once described it to my friend, Nicholas Roerich, a painter who had specialized in pagan subjects. … He became my collaborator in this creation.
“Pictures of Pagan Russia” is its subtitle; this was heady stuff for 1913. The scandal attending the premiere helps to explain Stravinsky’s image as iconoclast and revolutionary.
The ballet consists of two large parts—“Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” There are eight dances in part one and six in part two; thus, The Rite is basically a suite of 14 movements taking approximately 32 minutes in performance. Stravinsky later wrote, “What I was trying to convey was the surge of spring, the magnificent upsurge of nature reborn.” To do so, he enlisted the largest orchestra yet assembled, and surely the largest in any ballet pit.
Paradoxically, Stravinsky does not unleash the full power of this huge ensemble except for the climactic points in each part of the ballet. Instead, he emphasizes the breadth of color available to him with such a wide variety of instruments. The famous opening bassoon solo and the intertwined woodwinds that answer it before the atavistic “Dance of the Adolescents” breaks forth are fine examples. Stravinsky succeeds in making some of this remarkable score sound like chamber music. In other places, he launches a veritable assault on the ears that can make the rafters resonate.
Stravinsky’s score calls for a colossal orchestra of three flutes (third doubling on piccolo), piccolo, alto flute, four oboes (fourth doubling on English horn), English horn, E-flat clarinet, three clarinets (second doubling on bass clarinet), bass clarinet, four bassoons (fourth doubling on contrabassoon), contrabassoon, eight horns (seventh and eighth doubling on Wagnertuben), piccolo trumpet, four trumpets (fourth doubling on bass trumpet), three trombones, two tubas, five timpani requiring two players, antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, guïro (a scraped gourd), tam-tam, tambourine, triangle and strings. Timing: approximately 32 minutes.