Instead of the catcalls and raised fists that confronted The Rite of Spring
at its 1913 premiere, the audience for the Jan. 27 Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) concert rose in a standing ovation. Stravinsky’s once revolutionary ballet is now accepted without much thought in the concert hall, and perhaps that’s why MSO Music Director Edo de Waart opened the concert with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in C major, a beautifully balanced work of 19th-century Romanticism whose turbulent storm easily relaxes into a gentle rain. By establishing the contrast, de Waart measured the distance Stravinsky traveled and the shock that greeted his arrival.
And yet, Stravinsky’s modernism originated in the pre-modern world of human sacrifice beneath the golden bough. The MSO’s performance captured the mood, opening with a mysterious piping that promised the pleasure of Impressionism but delivered something more sinister on the sharpening knife’s edge of woodwinds and violins, the eruption of dissonance and the savage rhythmic thrust of the cellos, punctuated brass and clamorous percussion.
Stravinsky drew The Rite of Spring from primeval sources, including the Russian countryside as life returned after the sleep of winter and the colorful folk rituals that survived in that country into the 20th century. The MSO entered the spirit of the composition, transposing primitive into modern in frenetic tempo twists and brutal harmonies.