One hundred years after the première performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, perhaps one of the most controversial and infamous stage premières of all time, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Barbican Centre’s Total Immersion collaboration provided an all-round look at every aspect of the music, choreography and the première itself through a variety of events on Sunday, culminating in a live performance of the Rite, alongside several other orchestral dance arrangements, putting the work into the context of the dance genre.

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican © Lara Platman
BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican
© Lara Platman

Despite all my good intentions, the London transport system completely failed me and I arrived too late to see the first half, meaning I missed the undoubtedly wonderful playing of Alexei Volodin in two Chopin dances and the boisterous Borodin Polovtsian Dances. However, the second half began with a colourfully orchestrated version of Chopin’s Waltz in E flat major, the Grande valse brillante. Contrasting the rich tutti texture with snippets of solo work weaving throughout the orchestra, Stravinsky’s arrangement is a true lesson in orchestral colour. The typically heavy first beat of the waltz triple-time was disproportionately accentuated in tonight’s performance, leading occasionally to a rather ponderous feel and some messy percussion sections, though this was set off by some virtuosic wind solos and a lovely violin and clarinet duet adding a moment of sweetness and intimacy to an otherwise self-indulgent arrangement.

Diaghilev’s commission for the Ballets Russes was premièred in Paris in 1913, and was the scene for the most notorious audience riot in musical history. When the dancers came onto the stage, knock-kneed and with long braided hair, and proceeded to fling themselves around, jumping up and down with inelegant limbs akimbo, the audience must have wondered how on earth this could be classed as ballet, or indeed art. Disgruntled murmurings turned into a full-blown riot, which has gone down in history and added an air of mystery to the work.

In two parts, the Rite tells the story of a pagan sacrifice, with driving rhythms and distinctive harmonic colours interweaving with unusual solo textures. The very opening of the work, an extremely high bassoon solo, was managed well, and the juxtaposition of the variety of different moods throughout the work was also crisp and concise. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov, with dramatic gestures somewhat reminiscent of the original choreography, ensured that the driving rhythms were accurate, although I felt they were somewhat lacking in power and energy, despite the large forces on stage. The first section of Part 2 utilised a wonderfully mysterious string texture which lead into an exuberant orchestral dance and evoked some rather jazzy Ancestors. The swirling harmonies and increasing rhythmic complexities were fulfilled in the final dramatic flourish, which ended the day’s events with some vigour.

***11