SCSO’s “Rite,” Though Challenging, Is a Privilege

“The Rite of Spring”
Sioux City Symphony Orchestra
Orpheum Theatre, Sioux City, Iowa
November 9, 2019

“Life’s not always beautiful,” said Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ryan Haskins on Friday in a preview of the SCSO’s “Rite of Spring” concert.  As he introduced Stravinsky’s piece Saturday night, he called Rite of Spring awkward, edgy, raw, and rough.  He was right on all fronts.  Life is not always beautiful, and neither is Stravinsky’s masterpiece.  But if you’re looking for music that portrays the scorched-earth feel of a life—even one that has been sacrificed, as was the case in the original ballet—then Rite of Spring is the right choice.  Even if the audience remained unfamiliar with the loose narrative of the ballet, which was projected on the screens in the Orpheum, they surely must have felt the toil and tumult of genuine human experience. 

According to Haskins, Rite of Spring ushered in the contemporary period of classical music 106 years ago.  It is a piece that changed the face of modern music; it is a piece that is rarely played (especially in our area); and it is a piece that even the best orchestras in the world struggle, technically, to perform.  Referring to Rite after the intermission, Haskins said from the podium that “We have the responsibility to make sure that this music is performed.” 

But the night wasn’t only about Rite of Spring.  It was about living a life that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes not, and sometimes lost in the din of what is now a largely digital world.  The evening began with a world premiere performance of a work by friend of the SCSO, Clint Needham.  Needham’s Digital Reality, which was commissioned for this particular concert, sprang from a moment when the composer witnessed his entire family absorbed by their digital devices.  The piece begins with chaotic bursts which eventually back off to allow the rise of a more classically beautiful string passage.  Our modern, tech-derived anxieties become evident in dark, deep, almost Jaws-like undertones and in a harp-only sequence that seems so peaceful it can’t help but become eerie and unsettling.  In an homage to our ever-present phones, orchestral dings give way to an increasingly frantic atmosphere.  Toward the end, in my favorite section of the piece, the mania settles down and the digital world seems to resolve itself with the non-digital as longing strings reach for connection.  The strings open up to include the full orchestra, which is now complemented by the techy sounds that once seemed to dominate it.   It’s easy to be cynical about the role technology plays in our lives, but Digital Reality, while sometimes skeptical, avoids such cynicism.  By the piece’s end, one suspects that the devices have been put down and the family, at least for a little while, is living in the present. 

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s flute concerto Aile du Songe (Wing of Dreams), sandwiched between the other pieces, set a useful contrast.  While Rite and Reality have at their hearts some human experience, Aile du Songe tells, in a way, the story of a bird.  But it’s not a story, exactly.  Aile du Songe is far more lyrical and is just as unpredictable as the other two.  Rite and Reality both move toward a future of some sort, but Aile du Songe remains constantly in the present.  The piece—or the bird—flutters around, one moment feeling unconnected to the next, or the last.  The night’s featured artist, SCSO’s own Principal Flutist Brian Allred, used the flute as I’d never heard it used before.  The score called for him to sometimes speak into the flute.  At other times he blew empty, noteless air through it.  Such moments were, honestly, a little unusual, but they reinforced the sense of a flittering bird’s hollow bones.  The bird as an animal freed from the confines of the ground, but one that is delicate and fragile. 

The extra-large 95-piece orchestra needed for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

I probably won’t be seeking out Aile du Songe in the future, but it did make sense within the night’s program.  The airy emptiness it evoked primed the audience for the contrast presented by Rite of Spring’s volume, color, and richness.  After intermission, Maestro Haskins swapped Saariaho’s dancing bird for Stravinsky’s far more grounded dance of the earth.  And here, I think, is what made a somewhat difficult evening more palatable: the narrative. 

One of the things I appreciate most about SCSO concerts are they stories they tell and the narrative structure they take.  This one was a study in contrasts.  The human world in contrast to the technological; the bird, “a tiny satellite of our planetary orbit,” in contrast to “the kiss of the earth”; death in contrast to life; the empty in contrast to the full.  But Haskins also laid out an ambitious vision of the SCSO which has to be seen in comparison to the current orchestral landscape.  Said Haskins before Rite began: “The great American orchestras are charged with putting on programs like this.”  Mr. Allred, in a short video shown before his flute concerto, admitted it was a privilege to stand out front and bring this piece of music to the Siouxland audience.  I think it’s a privilege to have players willing to pursue such large game as Rite of Spring and a Music Director who, in pursuit of the long-term vitality and success of the organization, is willing to challenge not only the orchestra but the audience for a night. 

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home dad who mows his neighbor’s yard in exchange for piano lessons. He curates Art Hub Siouxland and hosts Take Whatever Beauty You Can Find, a podcast that talks to Siouxland artists about Siouxland art.