Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra: The Rite of Spring

Tue, 29 August 2023 at 7 p.m.
Helsinki Music Centre, Concert Hall

Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon, conductor
Charlotte Ritchie, Karl Queensborough, actors
Jane Mitchell and James Bonas, direction
Anouar Brissel, video design
David Bishop, lighting design

Introduction, Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Conducted by Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra’s interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring from memory premieres at Helsinki Festival.

The British Aurora Orchestra is an ambitious project by Nicholas Collon, Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, combining world-class classical music with visually-impressive stage antics. Founded in 2005, it is the first orchestra in the world to perform an entire symphony from memory.

On Tuesday, 29 August, Aurora Orchestra performs an interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at Helsinki Music Centre. Having premiered in 1913, The Rite of Spring has inspired dozens of multi-artistic productions over a century. The work tears open Western music conventions and still sounds timelessly radical.

Aurora Ochestra’s interpretation incorporates the music and musicians into the stage act in a unique manner. Jane Mitchell and James Bonas’ visually-impressive direction combines the orchestra playing from memory with video designer Anouar Brissel‘s projections, lighting and motion in a way that adds an entirely new perspective to Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

The first half will feature a comprehensive and exciting introduction to the work, a kind of “living playbill”, which has become a trademark of the Orchestra and Nicholas Collon.

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

When Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29 May 1913, the extremely avant-gardist nature of the music and choreography caused a scandal.

The subtitle of the work is “Pictures of Pagan Russia”. The scenario depicts different primitive rituals celebrating the coming of spring. In the context, a young girl is chosen as a victim with the fate of dancing herself to death. The Rite of Spring lacks a coherent plot or narrative; it consists of choreographic depictions following one another.

Stravinsky denied that the score was significantly based on Russian folk music but admitted that the opening bassoon melody was from a Lithuanian folk song anthology. He claimed that this was his only borrowing from the collection. Later analysis has, however, identified several other melodies of The Rite of Spring in the same source. 

Stravinsky got the idea for The Rite of Spring in the form of a fleeting vision while finishing The Firebird in St. Petersburg in 1910. He began working on The Rite of Spring at his home in Ustilug in Ukraine in September 1911. Following certain interruptions, the work was finished in Clarens in Switzerland in March 1913.

The reaction of Pierre Monteux, the conductor of the premiere, after hearing Stravinsky play a piano version of The Rite of Spring, was to leave the room and find a quiet corner. His first thought was that he would never conduct music like that. Even nearly fifty years after the premiere, Monteux said that he had disliked The Rite of Spring. 

Stravinsky’s score contained many hypermodern characteristics. The bold experimentations with regard to tonality, rhythm and dissonance caused all kinds of difficulties in the rehearsal period. Before the premiere, Monteux informed Stravinsky of changes he thought necessary. The composer implemented them all without complaint.

Due to the complexity of the work, as many as seventeen orchestral rehearsals were organised. Monteux had to ask the musicians to stop interrupting when they thought they had found mistakes in their parts. He said that he would tell them if something was played incorrectly. At one point – during a climactic brass fortissimo – the orchestra broke into nervous laughter, causing Stravinsky to intervene angrily. 

A typical Parisian ballet audience consisted of two different groups: the wealthy, who expected to see a traditional performance and hear beautiful music, and the Bohemians, who were excited about anything new and hated the dandies in the boxes. Monteux believed the trouble started when the two groups began attacking one another. Their mutual anger was quickly diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.” 

According to the descriptions of those present, the demonstrations were mostly aimed at Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and Nicholas Roerich’s costume design rather than at Stravinsky’s music. The earthbound lurching and stomping designed by Nijinsky and the dancers’ thick costumes, strange footwear and headwear caused booing and whistling.  

However, the performance continued without interruption. The unrest receded significantly during the second part, and at the end, there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra as well as for Stravinsky and Nijinsky. The legendary premiere of The Rite of Spring was brilliantly reconstructed in the 2009 film Coco & Igor, directed by Jan Kounen.

Music historian Donald Jay Grout wrote about The Rite of Spring: “It is undoubtedly the most famous composition of the early 20th century. It had the effect of an explosion that so scattered the elements of musical language that they could never again be put together as before.” The number of books and musical science studies written about the work is astounding. It is probably a greater number than has been dedicated to any other individual composition.