Francisco Coll Mural UK Premiere
Thomas Adès Polaris
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Thomas Adès, conductor
Totally Teenage Reception
(Birmingham & London)
Find out more about the music and meet NYO Musicians. For teenagers only.
Creative Hub (Birmingham & Snape)
A pre-concert of bold new music from NYO Composers.
This summer join a band of pioneers exploring composers taking music to new frontiers. The world’s greatest orchestra of teenagers is going on a voyage of discovery. And with Thomas Adès at the helm it is bound to be an exciting ride.
A protégé of tonight’s conductor, young Spanish composer Francisco Coll writes music that encapsulates modern life.
Mural is an extraordinary symphony where crazy Dionysus meets calm Apollo. Alternating between festive dances and dreamlike harmonies at times you can hear the hustle and bustle of the urban landscape and at others the calm stillness of a mountain range.
As night falls on Earth we look up and see Polaris - the North Star - glittering brightly in the vastness of space. For centuries, it guided sailors across the oceans and in Thomas Adès’s dazzling music we hear surging waves of brass undulate beneath the iridescent sparkle of piano and strings, the musicians drawn magnetically towards the note A, their own musical lodestar. And then it’s back down to Earth with a bang.
The musicians throw themselves with abandon into the wild pagan ceremonies of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. When Stravinsky unleashed this sensational ballet on Parisian audiences it was unlike anything that had ever been heard before. Its elemental, ritualistic percussion, stabbing strings and blaring winds make it one of the defining works of the 20th century.
Totally teenage orchestral brilliance.
Come and hear it.
Snape Maltings Concert HallBox Office 0172 868 7100
£6.50 - £33
Symphony Hall, BirminghamBox Office 0121 780 3333
£12.50 - £28 / £5 under 25s
Royal Albert Hall
Box Office 020 7589 8212
£7.50 - £40
Cast a pebble into water, and what happens? Ripples ebb outwards, each reaching further than the last. The effect is felt instantly as we embark on what Thomas Adès himself has called a ‘Voyage for Orchestra’: on gently plucked violins and piano, falling melodic droplets are reiterated over and over, gradually spreading out over the 12 notes in the chromatic scale and seeping across the orchestral canvas, with other instruments gradually uttering them too. Two harps, followed by tubular bells, vibraphone, celesta, glockenspiel and bell-like crotales, create a shimmering sensation, like sunlight on water. Floating above this, three trumpets in turn softly intone a tiny rising phrase, itself reaching higher with each utterance. They are the first of three brass groups, usually located apart from the rest of the orchestra, who chorus this converse figure while all other instruments are cast into the whirlpool spun from the opening notes.
Like the tide, both motifs lunge forward then are tugged back to their starting note, almost magnetically. When the tumult finally strikes the elusive twelfth note of the chromatic scale, the entire piece seem to upturn on its axis. Here, amid a frantic tsunami of semiquavers, the opening motif is cast at a new pitch and pace between two giddy piccolos, and the brass groups begin their gentle questing anew. This escalates again in its own distinct way, like a child’s kaleidoscope forming a new pattern from the same jewelled fragments. Once it too can expand no further, a marimba resumes the opening motif, the brass softly stirring beyond it – though this time we don’t feel so much at sea, the prevalent notes of A major glinting like land ahoy. The repeated ‘A’ seems to exert a gravitational pull, tethering all forces from drifting too far, slowing and smothering every last fugitive element in the work’s final bars. Here lies the essence of the work’s title. You might say that ‘A’ is an orchestra’s polestar, the note to which they all fastidiously tune at the start of every concert, like ancient mariners setting their course before embarking by the bright North Star.
Adès says ‘When composing, what you’re doing is dealing with magnetic forces in a way between one note and another… they have a certain magnetic relationship… I wanted to write a piece investigating that idea.’ Indeed, you may find yourself wondering why an orchestra always tunes to ‘A’. You may ask why major and minor keys exert such a pull on melodies, always dragging them back to familiar chords, curtailing all adventures. Not that the work is meant to be a scholarly provocation. Adès also says ‘Polaris explores the use of star constellations for naval navigation and the emotional navigation between the absent sailors and what they leave behind.’ Are those sailors the yearning brass perhaps, castaways from everyone else? Or, eager to roam yet constantly glancing back, maybe the musical ideas here represent all our feelings whenever we dip a toe in new waters and set out into the world.
Did you know?
First Part: Adoration of the Earth
Introduction - Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls - Game of Abduction - Spring Rounds - Games of the Rival Tribes - Procession of the Sage - Kiss of the Earth (The Sage) - Dance of the Earth
Second Part: The Sacrifice
Introduction - Mystic Circles of the Young Girls - Glorification of the Chosen One - Evocation of the Ancestors - Ritual of the Ancestors - Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)
Since its riotous premiere, The Rite of Spring has always been regarded as the enfant terrible of classical music. But now over 100 years old, does it still have the same virility and edge? To answer that question, it’s worth turning the clock back to sift the myths from the facts around that first performance in Paris. Famously, the work’s savagery turned the audience savage, and the stalls became a mosh-pit of furious punters. It’s a great story and, in telling it, we all rush to recall the names of great composers who stormed out in disgust, Saint-Säens apparently leading the march.
But closer scrutiny reveals a different tale. While the unearthly bassoon which opens the work drew the usual murmurs from a habitually lively crowd, it was only when the curtain went up and the dancers of the Ballet Russes enacted Nijinsky’s radical choreography that pandemonium broke out. At the second performance there was hardly any unrest and by the time the score was performed without the staging, the audience cheered Stravinsky in the street. What made the premiere such a scandal wasn’t so much the music but the engineering of Ballet Russes impresario Diaghilev who, long before the show even opened, was luring the public with the promise of something outrageous. On opening night, he even fanned the flames, flicking the house lights on and off in what he alleged was an attempt to calm the crowd, clearly intending the opposite effect. We can hardly blame Diaghilev for what he did: it generated such white-hot word of mouth that we still talk excitedly about it today. But would the music itself have generated such fervour without such a cunning midwife?
For all The Rite’s shock and awe, it was actually Petrushka (which Stravinsky wrote for the Ballet Russes a couple of years earlier) that introduced many of the hallmarks – polyrhythms, polytonality – heard again here. But while Petrushka is a parade of new ideas in rapid succession, The Rite achieves an unprecedented three-dimensional effect, stacking new feats on top of one another, ambushing the ears from every side, so you haven’t even had chance to fathom what you’re hearing before the next assault occurs.
Before the avalanche begins, it’s worth outlining the original premise of the ballet. Stravinsky and the artist Nicholas Roerich (who created the ravishing backdrops for the ballet which are well worth a look online) concocted a story about an ancient Russian tribe who select a young girl to dance herself to death, to herald the arrival of Spring. As authentic as it sounds, historians have since deduced this ritual never actually occurred in Russia, but – as Diaghilev himself would’ve said – let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The Introduction is deceptively gentle. At least to modern ears. While the plaintive bassoon sounds fairly benign today, its unusually high utterances may have sounded like howls back in 1913. As other woodwinds encircle it, you might envisage the first shoots of spring rising in the soil: their listless twisting sounds like Debussy who, if anyone, casts the biggest influence throughout the work. Yet with the Augurs of Spring comes music that nobody had ever dreamed before: a sudden stampede of repeated discords with random beats brutally accented. To give you a flavour of how outlandish Stravinsky’s palette was, the chords fuse an F flat major triad with a dominant seventh on E flat. Anyone even vaguely familiar with a piano keyboard will find themselves bamboozled by such a toxic compound. As Leonard Bernstein said, this piece entails ‘the best dissonances anyone ever thought up.’ But before you have time to absorb this shock, Stravinsky starts hurling streaks of muted brass and mocking winds into the maelstrom.In the Game of Abduction – when the tribesmen teasingly pretend to pick girls for sacrifice – Stravinsky breaks all bounds: instruments lunge in all directions, as if released into the wild after centuries of tuneful repression. The Spring Rounds bring a brief respite: a stately string figure seems to impose the first sense of order on the piece, but it too begins to swell until more fury ensues, burnished with a fiery tam-tam.
If the tiny melodic sparks that fly from the bonfire sound like folk music, it’s intentional: before he started writing The Rite, Stravinsky raided folk archives compiled by Rimsky-Korsakov and others to infuse a little authenticity into his ancient Russian saga. That said, wary of being cast as a nationalist artist bound to his homeland, he smashed the folk melodies into fragments to ensure he never sounded nostalgic.
A procession led by the tribe’s eldest member is next depicted by a cavalcade of motifs each repeating at their own pace. The first part then concludes with a lethal blitz, offbeat brass blasts eerily foreshadowing the bombs that would fall on Europe just a few years later. The sudden silence that follows introduces a brand of suspense never previously encountered in orchestral music.
The second part begins with ominous rocking – a feature vividly echoed in The Planets written just after Holst attended The Rite’s London premiere. The ‘night music’ of Bartók is also foreshadowed amid the languid strings and restless winds. While this sequence may have inspired others, Stravinsky himself is drawing again from Debussy. In the Mystic Circles, a solo flute redolent of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is set on edge by eerie tremolo violins. As one of the girls is chosen for sacrifice, the orchestra leaps back into life, jagged brass outbursts interspersed with violently plucked strings. In the syncopated onslaught, we get a sense of how difficult the music must have been to dance to. One of the original company remarked ‘with every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us’.
As the tribe re-enacts its ancestors’ rituals, the mood softens but a persistent pulse, emphasised first with tambourine and cymbal then increasingly festooned with grotesque new motifs, gives us a sense of the impending terror. Later, when he lived in Los Angeles, Stravinsky said this sequence foresaw the soundtracks of a hundred Hollywood monster movies; you can certainly hear flashes of John Williams’ scores for Jaws and Jurassic Park in the escalating tension.
When it comes, the Sacrificial Dance is more like the knife-swipes of Psycho; a frenzy of string stabs punctuated by timpani and brass screams. As stark as it must have sounded to its first audiences (and still does), what’s remarkable (and mischievous) about this denouement is that it follows a very traditional rondo form, practiced for centuries of classical music, with the stabbing theme recurring several times as the scene unfolds. It’s a reminder that Stravinsky wasn’t just a rebel; as his later works prove, tradition entranced him as much as blazing new paths.
Sometimes listeners wonder if they are up to the challenge of hearing everything Stravinsky invested in this extraordinary work. How, as they race by, can we value all the compound rhythms, dissonances and shadings? Is our appreciation of the piece limited by our comprehension of its inner-workings? Here we can take solace from the man himself who once said ‘I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.’ Indeed, by the time we reach The Rite of Spring’s shattering climax, it’s us – not the music – left feeling a hundred years old.
Did you know?