Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky's career spanned most of the 20th century, but chances are you know him best for a piece of music he wrote when he was just starting out: "Rite of Spring."
"Rite of Spring" premiered in Paris in the summer of 1913. It was commissioned by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, to accompany the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky. The performance was inspired by Russian folk tales — specifically, virgin sacrifice meant to appease the deities and promote a good harvest.
According to first-hand accounts of that premier, the audience grew agitated by the extreme modernism of both the score and the dance. Apparently they jeered so loudly the dancers couldn't hear the orchestra and stared at Nijinsky, who stood on a chair in the wings, for direction. Nijinsky's ballet didn't really survive, but 100 years after its debut, "Rite of Spring" still inspires choreographers and is performed regularly by orchestras around the world.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ludovic Morlot will conduct "Rite of Spring" and two other early Stravinsky ballet scores June 19-21. Morlot, who is French, says Russian artists like Stravinsky, had a significant influence on the Paris art scene in the early 20th century. Arguably, Paris was the world's art epicenter at that time, and the Russian emigres from the Bolshevik revolution collaborated with such international artists as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
Morlot says he doesn't often program a single evening of work by one composer, but in the case of the three early Stravinsky ballets — "Petrouchka" and "Firebird" are also on the bill — it's a chance to show audiences how the composer's work evolved very quickly in his early years in Paris.
Morlot acknowledges the all-Stravinsky bill will challenge audiences. It will also challenge his orchestra. He's hired extra musicians to sub in for his regular players if they need a break. Morlot wants everyone to be rested and ready for the program finale, "Rite of Spring."
The audience probably won't jeer the performers this time around. Two years ago when Seattle Symphony performed the work, as the last notes faded, the crowd in Benaroya leapt to its feet shouting, "Bravo, bravo."