The white walls of the hallway leading to the auditorium of the Greene Space were lined with 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper, each with one word scrawled across in varying degrees of legibility. Wednesday night’s audience members were asked to describe Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) in a single word, a difficult task considering the onslaught of words being written about the Rite on that day, the 100th anniversary of its première in Paris. One of the sheets of paper said “dinosaurs”; this viewer, like me, had probably first been exposed to the Rite thanks to the film Fantasia.

Vicky Chow © Stephanie F. Black
Vicky Chow
© Stephanie F. Black

My eyes then fell on two others, “feisty” and “riots”. Logical choices, as the majority of the tweets, blog posts, and articles celebrating the anniversary referenced the “succès de scandale” caused by Stravinsky’s collaboration with choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and impresario Sergei Diaghilev. As legend has it, Nijinsky’s dancers – depicting tribal rituals and culminating in the “Danse Sacrale”, during which the Chosen One dances herself to death – caused such an uproar that Stravinsky’s music could barely be heard. Amid jeers, shouts, and alleged physical confrontation, Diaghilev assured a concerned audience member that there were only five minutes left. (The piece is about a half-hour long, but always seems longer.)

100 years later, the Rite has been recognized as a classic and is performed regularly. The chords have been dissected, the complicated rhythms analyzed, and the simple melodies employed as modal sight-singing examples in theory classes. The piece is no longer new or riotous, but the music, along with its story, has stood the test of time.

Wednesday evening’s event, hosted by Soundcheck’s John Schaefer, was curated by composer Phil Kline as part of his 24-hour “Rite of Spring Fever” celebration for Q2 Music. Mr Schaefer made sure to point out the fire exits in the venue, adding that pandemonium was discouraged at this performance. He then introduced the piece with Mr Kline, who noted that we were about to hear a rare one-piano rendition of a work scored for dozens of musicians. Vicky Chow, a Bang on a Can All-Star, had combined two different one-piano versions and then redone the sections she didn’t like, creating her own, completely original arrangement. The result was a half hour of music that, no matter how many times you had listened to the Rite, sounded new and even astonishing.

On the stage was a single grand piano: no orchestra, no conductor, no dancers. On the piano sat an iPad rather than a score, with a button pedal on the floor used to turn the “pages”. Despite the pared-down nature of the arrangement, Ms Chow was able to convey stirring imagery and versatile tones. She drew lush chords from the 88 keys as if from 88 different instruments. I found myself hearing flutes and strings, and when she used the pedal, Debussian puddles of light swam across my vision. The savage textures and harmonies felt nearly as urgent and startling as they must have on 29 May, 1913.

True, occasionally Ms Chow’s fingers slipped; at times her hands were simply incapable of the masses of notes she had arranged. And, of course, it’s easier to hear the imperfections of a single performer as opposed to a few dozen. But sometime around the “Glorification de l'élue” (“Glorification of the Chosen One”), as her hands moved over and around each other, it all came together. Ms Chow’s fingers moved as frantically as Nijinsky’s dancers, from one end of the keyboard to the other, finishing in a flurry of triumph. She was greeted with neither hisses nor boos: just a well-earned standing ovation.

On the way out, I saw that more papers had been tacked up on the walls of the hallway: “bombastic”, “nerve-jangling”, “awesome”. The word that has stuck with me, though, is “pulse”. The chugging chords and percussive drive are what distinguished this piece from others, emphasizing rhythm over harmony or melody and creating a musical language that has inspired generations of composers since. Taking that into consideration, then, the Rite could be the pulse of new music, its sometimes erratic rhythms and chords pumping beneath the surface: no longer scandalous, but still a source of life.

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