“The Rite of Spring,” having reached the 100th celebratory anniversary of its clamorous Paris premiere this spring, is the new “Four Seasons.” Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score has become ubiquitous.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night in what might have seemed like yet another “Rite.” But it wasn’t. The Spanish conductor produced a sizzling riot of instrumental color that properly and excitingly reminded us of what all the fuss is about.
The program also included a stirring performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Augustin Hadelich as soloist. The concerto is rarely absent from the L.A. Phil’s summer season. But Tchaikovsky never appeared at the Bowl. Stravinsky did. In fact, Stravinsky’s significance, which began with the Bowl’s founding, remains too little acknowledged.
FOR THE RECORD:
Los Angeles Philharmonic: A review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the July 25 Calendar section said that the first Hollywood Bowl shell was built by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed by his son, Lloyd Wright.
French composer and astrologer Dane Rudyar, who knew Stravinsky in Paris and attended the “Rite” premiere there, was the first to discover the acoustical properties of the Cahuenga Pass five years later. The L.A. Phil began programming Stravinsky at the Bowl as early as 1925, a year before Frank Lloyd Wright built the first shell.
The first place that Stravinsky conducted after moving to L.A. in 1940 was at the Bowl. He became a regular presence there for the next 26 years. In 1972, the year after he died, the L.A. Phil mounted a five-hour memorial all-Stravinsky marathon. Ten years later, the orchestra presented a four-concert Stravinsky festival at the Bowl.
A dissertation could be written on Southern California and the “Rite.” Hollywood put the piece in the popular consciousness with “Fantasia.” In 1943, Stravinsky spent a month in Santa Barbara righting the “Rite,” revising the score and creating the modern edition that everyone around the world has lately been playing.
It was a performance of the “Rite” and the L.A. Phil in Paris in 1996 that demonstrated what the orchestra could sound like if it had a better hall, and that turned around stalled fund-raising for the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall. “The Rite” then opened Disney Hall in 2003 and became its signature piece. A rite of passage for Gustavo Dudamel was opening the L.A. Phil season last year with “Rite.” The L.A. Phil has Stravinsky in its blood the way the Vienna Philharmonic has Mozart.
Frühbeck seemed to sense that tradition Tuesday. Although he is well known for his crisp and lustrously tinted way with many composers of Stravinsky’s circle — notably Ravel, Debussy and Falla – Frühbeck is not associated with the “Rite.” He turns 80 in September and is beginning to look frail when he walks onstage. He conducts with stool handy.
But Frühbeck became a monster for the “Rite,” which he conducted from memory and rarely seated. The prominent video screens showed him at first wildly excited, as if trying to cultivate difficult balances on the fly. The Bowl schedule is notorious for its limited rehearsal (usually just that morning). Under the circumstances, simply getting through such a piece without a train wreck can seem an accomplishment.
Frühbeck, however, fashioned a real interpretation. Chefs think of spices as accents. The conductor used accents like a spice to bring out the flavor of instruments, which gave the performance a huge amount of atmosphere.
He conveyed savagery in a wild “Dance of the Earth.” He did hold back on the final “Sacrificial Dance,” probably out of need to keep the rhythmic irregularities in check, but he maintained arresting intensity.
This also proved a challenging test for the Bowl’s new sound system. Whitney Crockett’s eloquent opening bassoon solo sounded a little far away, but once the balances were adjusted there was a real sense of Stravinsky’s extraordinary physicality.
Hadelich sounded very good too. His tone is sweet, but he doesn’t milk it. Three years ago, when Frühbeck led the Tchaikovsky concerto with the L.A. Phil in Disney and violinist Hilary Hahn, the conductor graciously waited on his soloist as she went her own way, speeding things up only in the orchestra passages.
Tuesday’s performance was of a piece. Hadelich did not fuss, and he did not flinch at Frühbeck’s propulsive tempos or crisp phrasing. Stravinsky once conducted Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony at the Bowl, and his style was very much like this. Jascha Heifetz, another Bowl regular, was similarly pointed in his Tchaikovsky. Hadelich lived up to the highest standards. A large crowd (9,348 in attendance) went wild.
There were fireworks too, but not the usual kind. Frühbeck opened the concert with Stravinsky’s early “Fireworks,” which is seldom played, because it lasts less than four minutes and requires a huge orchestra. This is the twentysomething Stravinsky, full of fire and about to astonish the world with “Firebird.” It was a treat.
Anniversary alert: 2015 will be the 75th anniversary of Stravinsky’s debut at the Bowl. The county installed new sculptural furniture this year. There are no monuments to Stravinsky in L.A. (where he lived longer than anywhere else). That furniture would look at lot better with a Stravinsky sculpture to go with it.