Return to the Piano: Rite of Spring revisted

This is the story of my ongoing personal journey with one of the most iconoclastic pieces of music in history… Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring”, the piece that caused a now famous riot at it’s premier in 1913.

My journey started when I went to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at age 7. I was completely captivated by the music/image combination. It stuck with me something fierce. I’m not even sure I was playing piano yet, but I remember asking my dad for a recording of the piece (on vinyl, of course!).

Many years later in 1982, I received the 4 hand score (Stravinsky’s rehearsal score) as a birthday present. I was 22. An informal performance at New York University followed in 1984, with fellow pianist Bradley Kaus. Still entranced by the piece and not wanting to let it go, I started kicking the score around – exploring both parts – and this is when I began the process of casually “squeezing” it down to 2 hands.

I was really interested in the orchestral power of this amazing piece of music. As I worked towards a completed 2 hand score, I realized what I was trying to do was bring the Orchestral “experience” of the piece to the piano. i did the 4 hand score again, with Pianist Roberto Pace in 1995 for the Purchase Dance Corps. I continued to work on a 2 hand version, more for my own enjoyment then as a performance piece.

in 1999 I moved to Orange County and met quite a few musicians right away. One of them was Flautist Lynette Benner, who was programming classical shows at the Howland Cultura Center in Beacon NY, right across the river from me. “I’ve got it about 70% percent completed,” I told her. She said “Great! We’d like you to perform it in about 6 months”.

Gulp! Probably the best thing, tho – forced me to finish my arrangement and get it going. The thing I remember most about that 1st performance is that I was SO nervous, I thought I was gonna toss my cookies. :) (Note: It took 15 years to cull the initial arrangement….1984 – 1999.)

The show was great fun, and a serious pianistic workout.

I also performed it in a private setting for the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance Faculty. In attendance was an undergrad student, Jonathan Reidel. He was given the assignment of writing a “review” of sorts, for credit.Here’s that review:

A séance was held this past Thursday at 3 p.m. in studio J of the Dance Building at Purchase College. Primordial forces of Pangean proportion were channeled through pianist NEIL ALEXANDER as he single handedly (well, there were two hands and a foot involved) interpreted Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring”.

The piece that originally moved its audience to riot during its premier in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was originally intended as a ballet score to conjure images of primitive man, tribal reverence for nature, and ritual human sacrifice. It was subsequently brought forth visions in animated film of prehistoric Earth; molten, cooling, plates shifting, mountains erupting skyward, the evolution of species, their reign and cataclysmic extinction.

This is a formidable amount of energy to pass through an orchestra. The present question, posed in Studio J on Thursday, is what happens to such sonic energy when bottlenecked through a solo instrument? Neil Alexander will tell you that it must gush and stream out the other end like water through a fire-hose.

Clever transcription, first by Stravinsky himself for a four handed piano version, then by Alexander for solo performance, has kept much of the original depth and dynamics of the symphonic version alive. All of the thunderous crashes, floral flourishes, stomping rhythms and tidal pulls are represented. The monochromatic aspect of this version (dealing solely with the timbre of the piano) does not leave us wanting. What is lost from not having the other instruments represented is in the intrinsic connotations that they provide (a bird-like flute, a majestic French horn); what is gained is a broader interpretation of The Rite’s gestures and sweeps. Perhaps the Chaos and beauty is all in the mind of one figure. Maybe the setting is now that of film-noir. There are sections that even sound jazz-infused, yet seem in keeping with the stylistic continuity. The transcription is as “monochromatic” as Picasso’s Guernica; a piece many people forget is in gray-scale.

Purists may cringe, claiming that that the concept of a piano reduction is only meant for ballet rehearsals. But this piece was made for riots and I believe Mr. Alexander will welcome them.

Jonathan Riedel, Purchase Dance Corps

Jonathan has since gone on to start his own Dance company, Riedel Dance Theater. We stayed in touch; I would jokingly bug him about doing “Sacre” with his company.

I continued to perform the piece sporadically for about 3 years, and finally had “had enough”. It’s a bit hard on the hands. Besides, I wanted to move on to other things. And as it seems with all (or most) of my shows, no matter how much promo I did attendance was lite. I guess maybe I was expecting – hoping – that it would generate interest on it’s merits alone.

I did get one really good review out of it, from one of the last performances in 2002. Here’s that review:

Shy brilliance

>Neil Alexander rediscovers The Rite of Spring for solo piano

> Leslie Gerber, Woodstock Times

More than a quarter of a century ago, in l976, I traveled up to Arkviile to hear a piano recital. In this most unlikely location, and on a less than ideal piano, the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski played one of the most memorable piano recitals I’ve ever heard. For virtuosity and musical comprehension and for the chance to hear Rzewski’s masterpiece, the People United will Never Be Defeated, that afternoon remains in my mind as one of the most unusual and satisfying piano performances in my experience.

I had to wait until last Friday evening for a similar experience, and it was even more unexpected. Neil Alexander is a jazz pianist and synthesizer player. When he played Friday night at the Uptown in Kingston, he introduced himself by saying that he usually performed behind a wall of electronic equipment. But he was going relatively naked, with just an acoustic piano, because of his love for Stravinsky’s orchestral score The Rite of Spring. For the past fifteen years, Alexander told us, he has been working on a piano solo arrangement of this music, and he was finally ready to perform it the first time two years ago. “Don’t “expect too much from me,” he said with excessive modesty. ~I’m no Vladimir Horowitz.” Well, he was right about that. Horowitz could never have performed this music the way Alexander did it.

The Rite of Spring is an extremely complex piece, with thick and often dissonant harmonies and irregular jagged rhythms more the rule than the exception. It’s difficult enough for a good orchestra to play it well. Alexander has truly nailed the piece in his piano arrangement. He’s got the harmonies I and the rhythms, the textures of the music, accurately and lovingly reduced to the piano keyboard. The color of Stravinsky’s orchestration is missing (although Alexander’s playing had excellent tonal coloration, despite the limits of another less than ideal piano), but the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the music are clarified in this arrangement.

And best of all, Alexander played the music with amazing command. Some parts of the score are inherently unpianistic, but those fifteen years of work really showed in the way Alexander managed to transcribe and play them so accurately and with such exciting force. In short, this was a riveting experience, world class playing all the way. The dozen or so people scattered around the Uptown shared in a great musical experience, one I won’t soon forget. After a break, Alexander returned to what he usually does, jazz improvisation — although it was fascinating to hear the way his study of Stravinsky’s score has influenced the technique and thought of his jazz playing. I am not as much of an expert on jazz as I am on Stravinsky, so all I can safely say about Alexander’s jazz is that he obviously knows , what he’s doing and executes his ideas with the same facility and power as he does with Stravinsky. For He certainly held my attention. And when he was working with material I recognized, l Loves You Porgy from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I was best able to recognize the ingenuity of his improvising. It’s a pity that a performance like this drew so few people. But I have a suspicion that those of us who heard it are going to be telling our friends.

Watch for Neil Alexander’s name in the papers. And if you love great piano playing, go to hear him — and tell him not to be so modest!

A very good review indeed; however, my “lack of audience” problem has persisted – to this day, no matter what type of show – and so I ceased performing “Sacre”.

ZOOM FORWARD to 2011. Jon Riedel has come back to Purchase to get his Masters Degree. His company is doing well….and he has an idea for new Choreography, based on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”. Dark stuff, but ultimately well suited to the overall mood.

So – after not performing it for 7 years, I brought “Le Sacre” back. I made a few improvements to voiceings and such, and we premiered his chorepography, with live music, 2 nights last May. It was a smashing success! I have some video footage which I will post as soon as I get a chance. We are also talking about working it into his upcoming (2012) season.

And – we are also approaching the 100 anniversary of the Rite Of Spring, and I have my own plans: an International tour of small concert venues & house concerts, ending in Paris in May 2013 where the piece premiered 100 years before. I have to tell you, I’m very excited by the whole prospect. Plans are being drawn up as I type. Of course this syncs up very nicely with my return to purely acoustic performance, and the (soon the be released) Solo Piano CD.

..And there it is! We’ll be keeping you posted, you can be sure. Thanks for reading. :)

 

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