Nearly a century after Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” created a riot when it was performed for the first time in 1913 in Paris, the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra for its final instalment in its 29th season will play it at the CCP Main Theater on Friday, April 20, as tribute to the master and his opus.
Dubbed “Ochanine Conducts The Rite Of Spring”, the show will also have Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak, first woman grand-prize winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, as guest performer. As a fitting contrast to “Rite,” she will do Johannes Brahms’s “Piano Concerto No.1”.
Olivier Ochanine, PPO music director and principal conductor, tells us in an exclusive interview why music lovers shouldn’t miss this show.
First, kindly enlighten us what makes “The Rite of Spring” special?
“The Rite of Spring” is unique in so many levels. For us, it is one of the most pivotal works of orchestral repertoire (and music as a whole) that actually rarely is performed in Manila. One reason is the sheer size of the orchestra (approximately 100 musicians), and the other reason is the difficulty of the work. This piece experienced one of the most catastrophic premieres in history.
Written one hundred years ago, its style was completely the opposite of what music listeners were accustomed to. The subject of the Rite (primordial in nature and shocking to many) deals with Pagan rites of sacrifice to the god of Spring, or the earth in general. It represents the very primitive human, at one with the earth and its natural blessings and elements. The audience up to this point had been introduced to the Firebird and Petrushka.
The Rite breaks away drastically in its essence and the audience rioted during its premiere. You have very unique combinations of instruments involved—at times the bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet playing in duet, while other parts have the E-flat clarinet, piccolo flute and piccolo trumpet bursting through the orchestral construct shockingly!
The dissonances Stravinsky employs is also so hugely a part of the language that one cannot help but understand why this would have created a stir in 1913. One hundred years later and the piece sounds as fresh and shocking as it could possibly be. The rhythmic material of the piece is also quite stirring; the final, Sacrificial Dance is so complex in its rhythm that Stravinsky at first admitted he had no idea how he would compose it.
When was the first time you heard it and how did it make an impact on you as a musician?
I first heard this live in Los Angeles about ten years ago, although I’d heard it since late childhood. Its effect on me—and I imagine its effect on our listeners this week—was enormous. I had never heard such sounds performed live. In an era wherein we hear all sorts of artificial sounds, it’s quite impressive that an orchestral work comprised solely of musical instruments can have a similar effect. I was also taken by the simplistic nature of the musical content itself. While the work is structurally, harmonically and rhythmically elaborate, the music yet manages to portray the ancient rite at hand in a manner that depicts simplicity. It is music of extreme complexity that evokes an image of a non-complicated way of life.
Did you suggest it to the PPO for this season?
Yes I did suggest it. I suggest the programming for the orchestra. I chose it because it is high time that the work be performed in Manila, and it fits our season of reaching new musical heights. This piece is a great training work for orchestras.
How about Stravinsky, how influential was he to you as a musician, as a conductor?
Stravinsky’s music paved the way for a new thinking in music. After Stravinsky, the limits of what was ‘accepted’ had been greatly expanded, or at least tested beyond any previous limit. I have not performed Stravinsky before actually, so doing the Rite of Spring is a huge challenge and one that I am excited to take. The influence is not extensive… yet. His music has greatly influenced quite a few composers after his time, but I have not had the chance to interpret many of their works yet. I imagine that will change soon.
Tell us about Brahms piano concerto? Why pair it with “The Rite of Spring”?
The Brahms concerto is certainly quite a different beast. In a sense, it contrasts with the Rite in that it is fraught with lyricism, while the Rite is mostly about rhythm and harmonic language. The Rite features a few folk songs (including the beginning bassoon solo), but other than that, it is not exactly a lyrical piece. I had planned on featuring Sofya Gulyak for a while, since CCP president (Raul) Sunico had introduced me. I heard her play in her Philam Life Theater recital last year and was astounded by her abilities. I find the two works very fitting because they contrast each other quite nicely; also, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is also a bit of a trend setter in the fact that it is so big (around 50 minutes!). So we have two giants of music on April 20.
Tell us briefly about Sofya Gulyak.
Her musicality is of the top level. Her technique is jaw dropping while her sensitivity is hard to match. She is able to deliver music of Scriabin or Shostakovich and then switch right away to Schumann and she her style adapts right away. Her lyricism is astonishing, as is her stage presence. She owns the piano, there is no doubt about that.
For the next season, would it be OK if you tell us in advance the pieces that the PPO plans to do?
We are premiering a brand new work for Violin and Orchestra by Ryan Cayabyab, which I’ve commissioned him to write for the PPO’s 40th Anniversary and 30th Season. Dino Decena, our Associate Concertmaster, will premiere it with us.
Also on the docket are: Symphonic Dances of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Bottessini Bass Concerto No. 2 (Kurt Muroki, soloist), Brahms’ Symphony No.2 with Japanese conductor Yoshikazu Fukumura and the 5th Symphony of Gustav Mahler (that’s just a sample).
Any plans of doing Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”?
I would love to. I just have to figure out where to place it. No details on that yet. But I plan to do it before my time here in Manila has ended.
For tickets, call the CCP Marketing Department (tel. 8321125 loc. 1806), the CCP Box Office (tel. 8323704) or Ticketworld at National Book Store (tel. 8919999).