A classical music program that includes works by Haydn may not strike you as radical. After all Haydn–friend of Mozart, teacher of Beethoven–virtually invented the classical symphony as we know it. When newcomers think "classical music," it is probably the sounds of Haydn they hear in their head.
But things get interesting when that program also features Stravinksy, as it did at last night’s concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Lincoln Center, conducted by the Jewish-Hungarian composer Ivan Fischer, and which performs again tonight. (For an excellent profile of the composer’s Jewish identity, read this profile from London’s Jewish Chronicle.)
Stravinsky’s music, particularly in his early ballet works, upturned the classical music apple cart. In a story too often told, yet too delicious not to, a riot ensued at the debut of "The Rite of Spring" in Paris, in 1913, originally scored for ballet. The score’s squawking horns, pounding drums and serpetine melodies had none of the fine-tuned order and proportion that prim classical audiences had come to expect.
When the curtain was drawn for the ballet dancers to begin their accompanying dance, the audience, having already heard the opening bars, was already in a full-blown riot. The cat-calls and booing was so loud that the dancers couldn’t even hear the music, and relied on memory alone to continue their steps.
As Stravinsky later described it: "Then, when the curtain opened…the storm broke out. Cries of "Shut up!" came from behind me…The uproar continued…and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage."
"The Rite of Spring" is not so radical anymore–Walt Disney even used it for "Fantasia." But let’s be fair, if you are new to classical music it is probably not wise to have it as your introduction. I had an aversion to it for quite some time. But I also remember my conversion, viscerally, and if you can recapture some of its original primordial rage–its chaotic core–then I imagine there will be many more converts. Last night’s performance did, and for me, it was like my baptism all over again.
Fischer’s orchestra pulled you in with its seductive, almost meretricous opening lines. The curling flute melody that opens the piece brings to mind a genie coming out of her bottle, enticing you with a purring forefinger.
But it’s usually about ten minutes in that I get hooked. At that point, the piece takes an ominous turn, becoming decidely more dark, foreboding, while still keeping its essential unity intact. An onslaught of strings respond to thundering drums, which in turn are offset by delicate flutes. When Stravinsky wrote the music, he once said, he was thinking of the Russian spring of his youth. The rolling clouds, lightning, the burly chill, it all made him feel like "the whole earth was cracking."
For me, that segment captured exactly what he meant.
Last night’s performance of Haydn was no less inspired. "Symphony No. 102" (1794) and "Piano Concerto No. 2" (1784)–with an exacting and agile piano performance by Alexei Lubimov–captured the refinement that classical music, for better and worse, has come to represent. But Fischer deserves credit for putting both composers on the same bill: Stravinsky the Iconoclast, Haydn the Classicist. He reminded listeners that there are at least two equally rich traditions in the music’s history: classicism and chaos.
Stravinksy and Haydn