The 1913 premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, provoked the most memorable riot in the history of classical music. The music of the Rite remains modern to this day, but Peter Oundjian, who will lead the Yale Philharmonia in Stravinsky’s masterpiece this Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, believes it was the choreography more than the sound that so alarmed the opening-night audience.
“The music was unusual, but that’s not what they were booing,” Oundjian said in a recent interview. “Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the scandal. I’m of the opinion that it was the dance that was so outrageous at that moment in time. There was still a late Romantic feel about what dance was, and I think the outrage came when people began stomping their feet, looking like primitive beasts, with pagan rites depicted on stage.”
A century later, however, the musical composition retains its visceral impact. “Wailing bassoons, high clarinets — you feel nature all around you,” said Oundjian. It’s appropriate music to accompany a ballet (not performed at this concert) that depicts rituals culminating in a sacrificial dance of death.
The Rite of Spring was long considered one of the most difficult works for an orchestra to execute, but Oundjian has confidence in his great student musicians. “There are passages that are challenging, but the majority of it is quite straightforward rhythmically,” he explained. “Moments of course are mind-bending, including the final dance.”
Though composed only three years before the Rite, the opening work on the Friday’s program, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, belongs to a different musical world.
“Stravinsky was a 20th-century composer looking way back and creating something new,” Oundjian said. “Vaughan Williams was a 20th-century composer looking back to find inspiration, and recreating something from that inspiration. The pieces couldn’t be more different, but the concept is similar.”
The Fantasia is a work of lush romanticism, scored for strings alone. It is unique in its use of an echo orchestra, a small group of players seated apart from the main body, which produces an effect that must be heard live to appreciate. A separate string quartet forms a third element of the soundscape.
“Playing the Fantasia is a spiritual experience for string players — it is one of the most powerful pieces of music ever written,” said Oundjian. “The echo orchestra in the Vaughan Williams is kind of a voice of the angels…. I went to the same school as Vaughan Williams [Charterhouse in Surrey, England] and the Tallis Fantasia is extremely important to me. I later conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the piece at my school.”
“What do you put between two such pieces, cleansing the palette yet masterful?” asked Oundjian. His answer: something completely different, Mozart’s monumental 40th symphony.
“I want the students to play as much of the great repertory as possible, and the Mozart G Minor is a great experience — tragic and dark, elegant and perfect.”
When he speaks of music, Oundjian sounds more like a missionary than a technician. “I look back on my youth and can point to moments when I grew to understand the power of music,” he said. “We are there to give performances that move people to understand the power of spiritual communication. This concert is a great opportunity to share with young people, performers and listeners too, music that has meant so much to me.”