Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," now just 100 years old, still has considerable life in it, as proven Sunday night at Hannaford Hall.
The noted jazz trio The Bad Plus, which has earned a reputation for iconoclasm, arranged the score, originally for augmented orchestra, to suit their resources, resulting in a sort of rock opera called "On Sacred Ground," with 13 movements and one long pause.
Stravinsky, being a stickler for adherence to the score, would not have approved, but the large audience that braved the wind and snow to attend certainly did.
It is a considerable feat to have transcribed the work at all, but keeping its musical integrity (most of the time), while adding to the rhythmic excitement, made it a work of art.
At the beginning, it was surprising how well three instruments could mimic a full orchestra, especially with some magic tricks on the bass by Reid Anderson, who can make it sound like a bass drum, clarinet or piano at will.
Amplification also helped, with Stravinsky's huge sforzandos as surprising as ever, or maybe more so.
The complex rhythms of the score are child's play to a jazz drummer like David King and soon began to serve as a starting point for some astonishing riffs.
Most of the time they remained in character, but once in a while got a bit too "swingy" for the subject matter.
The whole thing was held together by Ethan Iverson's piano part, loosely based on Stravinsky's own piano transcription.
The best part of the performance was the imagery it created, from "The Augurs of Spring" to the final "Sacrificial Dance," It was here, in the accompanying video, that admiration had to be considerably tempered.
For the first few of the sections I enjoyed the soft-focus images on the screen -- snow melting in a spring thaw, bare tree branches, deer crossing a road -- but they rapidly became wearing, not only superfluous but counter to the scenes the music was trying to project.
Stravinsky is about as hard-edged as it gets, and dancing diaphanous ghosts just don't work.
There was an all-too-brief appearance by a live dancer in the final scene but she also began to dissolve into ectoplasm. One can be accurate and spiritual at the same time, as in the blowing paper bag sequence in "American Beauty."
My favorite image was the kaleidoscopic flower. I think concertgoers, at least those brought up on MTV, should be able to rent a kaleidoscope that changes patterns with the music, just in case the mental one isn't working.
The Stravinsky was followed by several pieces from the trio's new album, "Never Stop," which showed off King's pianissimo brush work and Iverson's innovative piano, such as the phrasing of a repeated note or moving a fragmentary motif up and down the scale by half steps.
"On Sacred Ground" was one of this season's series by Portland Ovations celebrating the 100th anniversary of "The Rite of Spring."
The next will be a performance by the Joffrey Ballet, March 21, of the complete ballet, with original costumes and choreography.
Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:
THE BAD PLUS
WHERE: Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, Portland
WHEN: Feb. 17