Spring meets fall: 2012 Fall Arts Preview

Among plentiful cultural entertainment options, the Carolina Performing Arts shines with its celebration of the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’

dmenconi@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2012 

  • Stravinsky centennial “The Rite of Spring at 100” series consists of 15 programs at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall during the 2012-13 season. For ticket details, see theriteofspringat100.org. Sept. 30-Oct. 1 Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma (music) Oct. 14 Compagnie Marie Chouinard (dance) Oct. 25 Studio for New Music Ensemble (music) Oct. 29-30 Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg (music) Nov. 11 Pierre-Laurent Aimard (music) Nov. 16 Brooklyn Rider with Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden (music) Jan. 25-26 Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Siti Company (dance, theater) Feb. 20 Magdalena Kožená and Yefim Bronfman (music) March 17 Cleveland Orchestra (music) March 23-24 Joffrey Ballet (dance) March 26 Vijay Iyer and International Contemporary Ensemble (music) April 3 Nederlands Dans Theater I (dance) April 12-13 Basil Twist with Orchestra of St. Luke’s (puppetry, music, dance) April 20-21 Spring Dance/UNC School of the Arts (dance) April 27 Martha Graham Dance Company (dance)

This fall will see plenty of artistic inspiration coming to the Triangle. From the third annual Hopscotch Music Festival to multi-media artist Meredith Monk’s Duke Performances residency, the N.C. Museum of Art’s “Still-Life Masterpieces” painting exhibit to the N.C. Symphony playing “The Wizard of Oz” soundtrack with guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, local arts venues will be brimming with wide-ranging ambition.

But the most ambitious undertaking of all has to be Carolina Performing Arts’ “The Rite of Spring at 100.” Encompassing music, dance, theater, visual arts and even puppetry, the series pays tribute to the 100-year anniversary of the Igor Stravinksy masterpiece.

It kicks off Sept. 30-Oct. 1 with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble premiering a piece specially commissioned for this centennial series. Between then and next April, 15 programs (11 of them new commissions) will bring acclaimed artists to Chapel Hill, including choreographer Bill T. Jones, director Anne Bogart, chamber group Brooklyn Rider, puppeteer Basil Twist and pianist Vijay Iyer.

“It’s such a wonderful huge project,” said violinist Colin Jacobsen, who will play Silk Road Ensemble’s opening shows and with his own group Brooklyn Rider in November. “‘The Rite of Spring’ came from a time when there was a sense that different arts really were able to talk to each other across borders. It was a call for artists to take humanity in new directions.”

“The Rite of Spring at 100” has to rank as the most audacious program Emil Kang has put together since becoming director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Performing Arts in 2005. It began taking shape a few years ago during conversations he had with UNC music professor Severine Neff, who pointed out that the Stravinsky work’s centennial was coming up. Intrigued, Kang queried a few artists about participating, to enthusiastic response.

Actually, Kang admits he hated “The Rite of Spring” the first time he heard it. Kang was a fifth-grader in New York City, and he thought its dissonant, jarring transitions made it “the most obnoxious piece of music” he’d ever heard.

“I was a young person, wearing my plaid polyester jacket and clip-on tie going to a concert expecting Mozart, and it was nothing like I expected,” Kang said, laughing at the memory. “And that response has stayed with me forever. It’s an incredibly important piece of modern music. Talk to classical, pop, jazz musicians and others, and they’ll probably rank it among the top-five of the 20th century. I don’t have an answer as to why, no one does. All I know is the piece itself still sounds new to me, even today. I think that’s the mark of something truly great, that you can hear it 20 times over and still get something new out of it.”

Classical icon

Originally composed as the score for a ballet by choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, “The Rite of Spring” has become one of the most iconic pieces in the classical canon – especially after Walt Disney used it to score an animated sequence depicting Earth through the ages in 1940’s “Fantasia.” But it was controversial music in 1913, causing a riot when first performed in Paris because its dissonance represented such a radical departure from melodic conventions of the time. And while history has been kind to “The Rite of Spring,” it’s still not exactly easy listening.

“It’s not a piece you listen to on headphones on your iPhone,” Kang said. “It’s something you really have to experience live. But I also want people to think about ‘Rite of Spring’ as an idea about the cycle of life, a homage to something greater than ourselves. We told artists we want them to use it as a metaphor rather than play it note for note, reinterpreting and reimagining the piece’s idea.”

One artist who got on board early with the concept was Twist, a New York-based puppeteer whose work is decidedly unconventional. A recent afternoon found him at UNC’s Memorial Hall experimenting with materials not usually thought of as the stuff of puppetry – air and smoke, for example, in the form of smoke rings and miniature tornadoes – for a piece debuting next spring.

Twist and his crew had fashioned a smoke-ring blower from a cardboard box, surgical tubing and plastic wrap. It shot perfect 18-inch smoke rings that went all the way to the hall’s back wall before dissolving.

“I don’t use the usual ‘puppets,’” Twist said. “But even though it’s abstract, it’s still about me making images come to life, even if they’re made of bubbles. When you see a piece of fabric come to life onstage, and you know it’s not a living thing, that is the essence of puppetry. The essential idea of bringing something inanimate to life is what drives my work.”

Time, transcended

When he was growing up, Twist made home movies, often using “The Rite of Spring” as a soundtrack. The story he’ll tell with his piece is still taking shape, but it will be the biggest he’s ever attempted.

“I want to create an experience on a large scale, a piece of theater for audiences to experience,” he said. “It’s a dance, although most of the dancers are not human – they’re smoke rings, pieces of fabric, air currents, curtains, the mechanisms of the stage, line sets, lights. The stage is a really fantastic instrument I can play.”

Pianist Iyer speaks in similarly ambitious terms about his piece, inspired in equal parts by Stravinsky’s music and “Holi” – a springtime Hindu religious festival in India. It’s less a direct homage to “The Rite of Spring” than to Stravinsky’s underlying inspirations as a pianist.

“I’m interested in creating a heightened sense of dialogue not just about the nuts and bolts of the work, but the impetus and underlying themes, the reasons why it exists in the first place,” Iyer said. “The dialogue I’m interested in with Stravinsky isn’t so much formal or sonic, even though I’ve known and studied the music a long time. Stravinsky’s music is on a grand canvas, but he was coming at it as a piano player. There’s a famous version of ‘The Rite of Spring’ for two pianos, and the piece’s ideas are very pianistic.”

Jacobsen, of Silk Road Ensemble and Brooklyn Rider, is also intimately familiar with “The Rite of Spring,” going back to playing it in the orchestra while studying at Juilliard. Jacobsen remembers being “blown away” the first time he played it, and the music is as powerful today as it was a century ago.

“That’s the thing about truly great music and art, they transcend their time even as they are very much of their time,” Jacobsen said. “The idea of looking back to move forward is something we’re very engaged with. This is such a huge, iconic work that rocked the world, so it’s a challenge. The multiplicity of viewpoints through the season is very exciting. I wish I could be there for all of it. But at least I’ll be there for two parts of it.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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