Review: Risk pays off in MSO's 'Rite of Spring' presentation

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

As Maestro Mei-Ann Chen put it, "We have to climb the artistic mountain."

It was a risk and a challenge for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to present the Masterworks concerts over the weekend. Rather than the usual mix of three or four musical pieces, it was a single work -- Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" -- preceded by a multimedia presentation on the origin and evolution of the game-changing composition that premiered 99 years ago in Paris and was met with a concert hall riot.

The endeavor by the MSO to reshape tradition paid off, however, in terms of performance and as measured by audience reaction, which was enthusiastic to both the hourlong presentation known as "Beyond the Score" and to the post-intermission performance Sunday afternoon at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre. It was also performed at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night.

The multimedia presentation was developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a way to get audiences more familiar with classical works. It's especially useful when dealing with a piece like "Rite of Spring," which effectively reshaped music with its complex rhythms, crashing dissonances and boldness of purpose. It also has long put off people who, when they hear terms like "dissonances," tend to flee back to Bach.

"Beyond the Score" is a sophisticated enterprise, using the full orchestra, a specialized performer, two narrators and visual documentation on a screen behind the orchestra to document the evolution of Stravinsky's work.

Narrating were Michael Detroit, associate producer at Playhouse on the Square, and Bradley Armacost, a Chicago actor with considerable stage and screen credits. Valeriy Yavor provided performances of specialized instrumentation -- the zhaleika and dudka wind instruments that are part of the folk tradition that inspired Stravinsky. And when the robust documentary required orchestral examples, the MSO blew the roof off as needed.

The "Beyond the Score" approach clearly explains the folk tales behind Stravinsky's inspiration, the roadblocks he faced in creating it, the process used to put it together and what it has that makes it the masterpiece it is.

By the time it's done, the audience is well prepared for a heightened enjoyment of the work. After intermission, Chen led the orchestra through a brilliant and energetic performance. Anyone who has seen her conduct knows the passion she conveys, but you knew it was dialed to the max when you saw her repeatedly jumping up and down on the podium, calling out a great effort by the orchestra.