Please Don’t Destroy the Auditorium

by Chris Vitiello on March 25, 2011

the Bad Plus (photo: Cameron Wittig)

When I read about the plans to renovate Page Auditorium, I understood why Duke Performances scheduled Kronos Quartet’s all-Steve Reich program and the Bad Plus’ jazz arrangement of The Rite of Spring in the same week: They must be trying to save on demolition costs. After all, the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite in 1913 famously caused a Parisian audience to run amok, while Reich’s Four Organs was met with shouting, shoe-banging, and ironic submission in Carnegie Hall in 1973.

Then again, Reich earned standing ovations from Durham last week, and the Bad Plus will perform at Reynolds, so I guess we’ll need that work crew at Page after all. Modern audiences are harder to cajole anyway, and the closest thing we’ve seen to a riot this season is puzzlement over Will Oldham’s turn with the Babblers.

All kidding aside, musical performances have led to a number of notable riots over the years. When London teenagers saw Blackboard Jungle in 1955, they went nuts even before the movie began, thanks to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” playing over the opening credits. They danced in the aisles and trashed the theaters, ripping out the seating. Once word got around, young Liverpudlian John Lennon credited the moment as not only a revelation of music’s potentially earth-shaking power, but of his own desire to wield it.

Nijinsky in "Scheherazade"

It took a regiment of gendarmes to complete the debut of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Whistles, boos, and catcalls drowned out the music and prompted Stravinsky to flee the theater as fights broke out and the house lights were raised. Historians and biographers leverage newspaper accounts of the day to debate which was more responsible for the riot—Stravinsky’s music or Nijinsky’s choreography. Many accounts note that the music was almost inaudible because of the din of opponents and supporters alike, and focus on the dance.

Andrey Levinson described Maria Piltz, Nijinsky’s principal dancer, as “facing calmly a hooting audience whose violence completely drowned out the orchestra. She seemed to dream, her knees turned inward, the heels pointing out—inert. A sudden spasm shook her body out of its corpse-like rigor. At the fierce onward thrust of the rhythm she trembled in ecstatic, irregular jerks.”

Levinson’s description of Piltz’s movements evokes one of the images that guided Stravinsky’s composition. In a 1911 letter to Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, he noted his ethnographic inspiration of the “the old woman in squirrel skins… running in front of everyone, and stopping every so often.” Bear in mind that this was a radically different kind of dance for the ballet stage; Martha Graham was only nine years old at the time.

Other reports on the debut, though, did focus on the music. From L’Echo de Paris:

[I]n the quest for a primitive, prehistoric effect, [Stravinsky] has worked at bringing his music close to noise. To that end, he has concentrated on destroying all sense of tonality. One would like to follow in the score (which I didn’t receive) this eminently amusical labor… The point is to avoid nearly always any of those ignoble chords which used to be thought of as consonant.

Steve Reich

Reich’s Four Organs produced a lower-key clash—amusical labor was less shocking in 1973, and the NYPD did not attend. The piece had actually debuted at the Guggenheim Museum as part of a curated experimental music series, garnering a substantial write-up in New York magazine. Michael Tilson Thomas then conducted the piece in Boston with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1971 where, as Reich recalls in an interview with William Duckworth, it “received polite applause and polite boos—and that was that.”

Thomas then brought Four Organs to Carnegie Hall on a BSO program with Franz Liszt’s work. The four Farfisa mini-compact organs that Reich had chosen for the piece didn’t suit the Liszt crowd. Their harsh sound, combined with the unrelentingly mathematical composition, caused one woman to bang either her head or her shoe on the edge of the stage, and another to shout “Stop! I confess!” Arguments broke out between Reich proponents and the Carnegie season ticketholders.

This is how Reich remembered the Carnegie Hall performances of what was, perhaps, his last truly minimalist work:

I was so preoccupied, so innocent, thinking about wires and rehearsals, that I didn’t think about the program and the audience. But when we started to play the piece, we got about five minutes in and there was noise from the audience. And that noise just continued to grow and grow until we got lost. Michael Tilson Thomas had to yell out bar numbers so that we knew where the hell we were. When it was over I went backstage and said “Did we get together at the end?” “Forget about that,” he said, “this has been a historical event.”

As the Bad Plus noted in a talk earlier this spring, most Americans first encounter Rite in the Disney movie Fantasia, where it scores the Big Bang and evolution through the fall of the dinosaurs. But this jazz trio knows Stravinsky much more intimately than that, which this long and fascinating blog post by pianist Ethan Iverson attests (of particular interest is the discussion of Stravinsky’s own relationship with jazz via the big-band-deconstructing Ebony Concerto). There probably won’t be a riot. But if The Rite of Spring has come to feel safe and familiar via canonization, the Bad Plus is an ideal unit—informed and iconoclastic—to make it feel strange and dangerous again.

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