BWW Review: PROM 6: THE RITE OF SPRING, Royal Albert Hall
"Parisians hiss new ballet" read The New York Times upon the première of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (with choreography from the renowned Vaslav Nijinsky) back in 1913; it supposedly sparked riots as the audience reacted badly to this daring piece of music, though it's thought that the strange new dance moves were the real focus of their wrath. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the piece is firmly established as a classic of its era - the Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School performing it as part of this year's BBC Proms season.
To begin the evening, the audience was treated to the UK première of Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Metacosmos; inspired by the act of falling into a black hole, with the ensuing struggle for power as you come to realise that events are out of your control. It's probably a bit of a cliché to say it, but this is quite a moody piece and wouldn't sound out of place in the background of a Scandi noir. It's also quite evocative of the Icelandic terrain, suggesting rugged rocks and volcanoes (Eyjafjallajökull definitely sprang to mind).
It was fascinating to see the innovative use of instruments from various different sections of the orchestra to create sounds of order and chaos - from percussionists brushing and scraping drums and the brass section muffling their instruments, to violins, violas, cellos and double basses temporarily acting as extra percussion.
After a short pause, this was followed by Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto. James Ehnes joined the orchestra for a masterful performance as the soloist, before being encouraged back for a Bach encore. At times it's clear why this piece was grouped together with Stravinsky and Thorvaldsdottir, particularly in the more energetic (and occasionally discordant) first movement, though overall its effect was rather more soporific than the others.
There was great anticipation for the main event as the auditorium filled up after the interval, as the orchestra tuned up and Emily Nebel made way for Timothy Choo as leader. The piece was obviously first composed to represent a set of pagan rituals that take place in spring time, however many will be familiar with it through Disney's Fantasia; the animation depicts the creation of Earth and the origins of life - from the primordial soup until the extinction of the dinosaurs - which fits the music so well that I could vividly picture certain parts of it as it was being performed.
It's quite apt that The Rite of Spring ended up soundtracking the origin of life, as its own influence can be heard throughout modern music; the bassoon solo that threads through Part 1 has a hint of jazz to it, for one thing, and several John Williams scores must owe a debt to this composition - parts of it wouldn't sound out of place in Star Wars or Jaws. It was undoubtedly ahead of its time, and despite its atonal nature it still captures the imagination to this day.
It is a bit of a shame that this couldn't have been a full Stravinsky prom, to celebrate his innovation and influence across the generations - indeed, The Firebird will feature in Prom 8 alongside other dance-themed pieces - as the primal and tribal theme didn't quite carry through. However, the orchestra returned for a well-deserved encore, paying homage to the joint venture of British and American musicians with a performance of Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks, which managed to fit in nicely with the other compositions and provided a fun end to the evening.
Picture credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou