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MSO's version of The Rite of Spring: Last rites for a modern masterpiece

Kent Nagano with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Montreal Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano
Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
Roy Thomson Hall
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was one of the seminal moments that created modern art. One critic noted that at its premiere performance in May of 1913, "the 20th century began." But Stravinsky wasn't alone. A few years earlier, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon had ushered in cubism; the next year, James Joyce published Ulysses. The world of art suffered seismic shocks in one discipline after another in the first decade of the last century.

But that was then. Today, Joyce is taught in university literature survey courses without raising an eyebrow. Les Demoiselles sits in one of the most conventional galleries in the world, New York's Museum of Modern Art. In a world of diamond-studded skulls, and crucifixes immersed in urine, it hardly causes a ripple. Only Stravinsky still has the power to shock, a hundred years later.

Or so I thought until Kent Nagano and his Montreal Symphony performed Stravinsky's great, primitive, Slavic ballet score at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night. In Nagano's tight, controlling hands, this Stravinsky sounded less like a harsh, wild musical depiction of a young woman who dances herself to death in a primordial sacrifice, and more like a PhD thesis on the techniques of early modern music. The last time we heard the Rite in Toronto, it was presented by the powerful, id-soaked fantasy of Valery Gergiev, drenched in the sweat of paganism. In comparison, Nagano's Rite was crystal clear, and icy cold. A hipster's Rite, careful not to fall into the "trap" of emotionalism, unwavering in its detachment and clarity.

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Nagano isn't alone in approaching this monumental score in this fashion. Stravinsky himself conducted the work with a view to underplaying rather than overplaying the very power he had created as a composer. But in Nagano's hands, a terrible thing happened to the Rite – or at least, terrible to me. All of a sudden, this work that I've loved – desperately – all my life, seemed a bit frayed around the edges. Take away the primordiality of the Rite, and you realize that it's made up of a few too many, well-worn musical techniques – repeating rhythms that conveniently move accents off expected beats, again and again. Way too many dramatic cannonades from the eight tympani and two bass drums Stravinsky wrote into the score. Atmospheric string timbres that now sound like the score to every horror movie you've ever seen (although that's not Stravinsky's fault). All in all, a mishmash of musical party tricks.

It's not that the work was played badly by the MSO – quite the contrary. This is a marvellous orchestra, which plays beautifully together, and is blessed with virtuoso after virtuoso within its ranks. And it's not that Nagano is just a cold conductor. Peter Maxwell Davies's charming An Orkney Wedding, which preceded the Rite, was full of passion, humour and rustic warmth. As was the Haydn Surprise Symphony, which opened the concert, a perfect combination of intelligence, wit, excitement and power.

No, Kent Nagano, an exceptional musician, chose this interpretation of the Rite as a carefully considered artistic decision. And, in the end, that's one of the reasons why you go to symphony concerts, to observe and reflect on these decisions. For me, however, Nagano's view of the work had quite devastating consequences. For the first time, I harboured the thought that Stravinsky's modern master-piece cannot escape the fate of its artistic contemporaries. If the techniques of Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway are now as commonplace as the latest romance novel, if Picasso's cubist adventures are reproduced today in ads, maybe Stravinsky must join them. Maybe The Rite of Spring is not a timeless work of art, but rather a wonderful, if dated, moment in music's unfolding history. A spectacular prisoner of its time – nothing more. I don't necessarily thank Kent Nagano and the MSO for this revelation, but well-performed art is supposed to do this – challenge as well as delight.

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