The epitome of cool

10 personal impressions of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

 By Neal Gittleman

Photo: The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky [above] Sept. 26 – 28; photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Just over 100 years ago, on May 29, 1913, a sophisticated Paris audience went nuts – and not in a good way – at the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. This year, on Sept. 26, 27, and 28, the Dayton Philharmonic opens the 2013-2014 Classical Series with concert performances of The Rite of Spring. I’m hoping our sophisticated Dayton audience will go nuts, too – but in a good way!

Here are 10 personal takes on this amazing piece of music…

1. Mom goes nuts – 1966: I’m 11. My mother tells me of her first experience of The Rite of Spring. How she’d run screaming, covering her ears to block out the harsh music coming from the radio. Sounds cool to me!

2. Neal hesitates: Mom says “Stravinsky” but I hear “Tchaikovsky” and can’t believe Tchaikovsky wrote anything cool enough to repel my mother!

3. Neal checks it out: Oh, it’s NOT Tchaikovsky! I snag my parents’ LP and listen. I’m hooked, especially by the pounding rhythms of the “Dance of the Young Girls.” The album quietly slips into my record collection.

4. Zappa – 1967: A friend introduces me to the Mothers of Invention. By the time I get to We’re Only In It For the Money a year later, I’ve heard many examples of Frank Zappa quoting The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s stock goes up and up, in my estimation!

5. Hearing it live– 1970: Michael Tilson Thomas, then the young, charismatic assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, leads a Stravinsky festival, including The Rite of Spring – My first chance to hear it live. I go nuts – in a good way! Most vivid memory: Sherman Walt and the BSO bassoons blowing accents so hard it sounds like their instruments are going to explode. (Thirty-eight years later I meet Walt’s widow, who’s in Dayton volunteering for the Obama campaign, and get to tell her the story!)

6. Playing it – 1973: I’m a sophomore at Yale, principal second violin of the Yale Symphony. We play The Rite of Spring. As cool as it is to hear, it’s even cooler to play. (Hard, too!)

7. Studying it – 1975: After college, I go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who had been a close personal friend of Stravinsky. I know I want to be a conductor and I know I want The Rite of Spring in my repertoire. Every morning in Paris I roll out of bed and first-thing, I conduct my way through the fiendishly difficult “Sacrificial Dance” that closes the piece. (This summer, I reprised that crack-of-dawn routine – though not quite every morning.)

8. The Monteux school: One hundred years ago, as the audience rioted in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, it was the great French conductor Pierre Monteux who calmly held everything together in the orchestra pit. Decades later, I’m a conducting student at the Pierre Monteux School in Hancock, Maine, training under Monteux’s pupil Charles Bruck. The Rite of Spring is always on the School’s repertoire list. Every summer, one of the newer students – it was never me – steps up, all full of tension and drama, to conduct the “Sacrificial Dance.” It falls apart. Then one of the older students – one year it was me – is summoned to the podium without prior warning to do it “the right way” – calm, clear, free of all tension and drama. It works. Moral: Don’t get excited. Just help the orchestra through the difficulties. It’s the audience that’s supposed to get excited, not you!

9. Steve’s advice – 1988: As associate conductor of the Syracuse Symphony, I get my first chance to conduct the piece. A few weeks before, I’m doing an in-state tour with the Milwaukee Symphony. MSO Principal Bassoonist Steve Basson – perfect name or what? – asks me what I’m conducting in Syracuse. When I say The Rite of Spring, Steve gets all excited and asks, “What’s your plan for the first rehearsal?” I don’t have one, so he tells me: “Start at the end, with the ‘Sacrificial Dance.’ Rehearse that first. Then work backwards, rehearsing each of the five really hard sections. Skip all the ‘easy stuff’ – there actually is some! – Then, in the last half-hour of the rehearsal, start at the beginning and read straight through to the end.” It works like a charm. I’ve used that scheme ever since.

10. The Rite of Spring at the DPO – 2013: This’ll be my fourth time conducting this masterpiece. Every time is special, but this one’s extra-special. You know “The Big Read,” where lots of people all read the same book? This September, the University of Dayton’s incoming freshman class does a “Big Read” on The Rite of Spring. They’ll all come to the Schuster to hear the DPO as part of UD’s “Rites/Rights/Writes” project, which takes Stravinsky’s epochal score as the jumping-off point for a year-long campus-wide exploration of ritual, human rights and writing. So, the DPO musicians and I have the chance to turn on a whole new generation of Stravinsky freaks. How cool is that?

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. 100 years old and still the epitome of cool!

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Sept. 26-28 at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, 2 W. Second St. as part of the Russian Rites program. Performances take place at 8 p.m. each evening. Ticket prices range from $9-$59. For more information, please visit

 Reach DCP freelance writer Neal Gittleman at


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