Igor Stravinsky is a rather controversial name in the music world. His 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring is well known not only for its jarring dissonance and abnormal rhythmic patterns but also for causing one of the most notorious riots in musical history. Audience members booed and walked out of the theater when members of Serge Diaghilev’s dancing troupe Ballets Russes appeared on stage, gesticulating frenetically and stomping in an inelegant manner. Of course, one should expect nothing less, considering Stravinsky’s inspiration. “There arose,” he wrote later on in his life, “a picture of a sacred pagan ritual: the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before the death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of spring in order to gain his benevolence.” The music perfectly reflects the grotesque beauty of this vision: The opening bassoon solo beckons us to a mysterious world that quickly turns violent with frightening string chords, yet also an inner peace survives with the repetition of the simple initial melody. The only thing that could possibly make this piece more unorthodox and exciting? Why, having a jazz trio reinterpret it, of course!
While The Bad Plus, featuring Reid Anderson on the bass, Ethan Iverson on the piano and David King on the drums, is famous for what The New York Times called mixing “the sensibilities of post-‘60s jazz and indie rock,” their performance on Friday at Bailey Hall featured their reworking of Stravinsky’s piece. Considering the unusually large orchestra The Rite of Spring calls for, one cannot help but wonder how three musicians could ever conceive of taking on this challenge. But once Iverson began playing, the audience knew it was in good hands.
The gentle tones of the piano added to the eerie atmosphere the opening solo creates; Iverson seemed to be teasing out the notes from his instrument, causing the audience to breathlessly anticipate the chaos to come. King’s drumming was astoundingly energized, more than compensating for the lack of an orchestra piece. Iverson was the never-faltering heartbeat of the piece, though he had more than one shining solo. The most impressive part of the performance, however, was the amount of respect the three players clearly had for the original work. While other artists would have added more complex rhythmic figures and schmaltzy solos, the integrity of the musical score was not compromised. As Iverson stated, The Rite of Spring “[has] really been one of the seminal works of art,” and it would be a shame to try to make it anything other than what it is.
Cooperation between the group members was key to the wonderful performance. While orchestras rely on a conductor to aid them in forming a cohesive group, these three musicians only had each other to rely on during what most likely was the hardest half-hour of performance any musician could possibly envisage. Their eye contact was not only important in sustaining the music, but also in the audience’s perception of the group as a cooperative unit, rather than three individual players. Choir teachers always tell their students to smile while singing, the logic being that the audience will enjoy the performance if the performers seem to be enjoying the performance; The Bad Plus was able to convey unadulterated, unfeigned enjoyment that certainly enhanced the wonderful music. King’s smile of glee and Iverson’s occasional leap off the piano bench — as if the music had electrified him — was just as enjoyable to watch as the music was to hear.
The multimedia aspect of the performance was also impressive. Artists Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton made a film to accompany the music, making the savage beauty of the piece even more palpable. The film opened with an image of the sun reflecting off a snowy bank, highlighting the serenity of Iverson’s solo; only the faint heartbeat in the background told of the destruction yet to come. The disorderly rivulets of melting snow and the opaque dark waters similarly added to the discord of the following musical section. But the climax of the film allowed the audience to experience the ballet as it was meant to be: a lone dancer waves her arms and jumps up and down in wild abandon. Her face is white, her eyes are wide with fear, but she cannot stop moving. At one point, she danced on a mirror that clearly reflected her every move, the camera focused in such a way that her true self was blurry and smudged while her reflection was sharp and focused. One could not help but think that she was dancing on her grave and that her body had already begun to destroy itself while her spirit danced on in the underworld.
The Rite of Spring was ahead of its time, but even now it manages to shock and intrigue audiences. The Bad Plus’ respectful yet innovative interpretation perfectly captured the fear and reverence Stravinsky’s work conveys, and Guadalupe and Hutton’s film highlighted the sinister nature of the narrative. If the minute-long standing ovation the performance received is anything to judge by, one could say that the rite of spring has been successfully completed.