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Forte: Remembering Yakima's 'Rite of Spring'

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The Yakima Symphony Orchestra at The Capitol Theatre on Feb. 8, 2020.

The Paris premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Rite of Spring” in May 1913 is often described as having provoked a “riot.” While there is some debate over how much of the mischief that ensued may in fact have been carefully orchestrated, it is certainly true that it was a memorable evening — for those in attendance, and apparently vicariously for many more who later claimed to have been there but actually weren’t.

Many believe the uproar was primarily inspired by the choreography, in which Vaslav Nijinsky eliminated virtually everything that is valued in traditional ballet. In the end, however, this was only a reflection of the music; Tchaikovsky’s quintessentially traditional “Nutcracker” ballet had premiered only two decades earlier, but stylistically it might as well have been a century away.

For the orchestra at that premiere, Stravinsky’s score presented new and perplexing musical and technical challenges. From its very first note, pushing a solo bassoon to the uncomfortable upper extremes of the instrument’s register, to the closing “Sacrificial Dance” with its complex rhythms and rapidly shifting meter, this was unlike anything orchestra musicians were accustomed to. Somehow, despite the catcalls, fistfights and barrage of projectiles, the musicians managed to perform the ballet all the way to the end without stopping.

Over the next hundred years, this work (known to musicians simply as “The Rite”) became a staple of symphonic literature, quite apart from the ballet stage. Major orchestras of the world now perform the work regularly (when they are able to perform at all), and music students learn their individual parts for auditions.

Nevertheless, a performance of “Rite of Spring” outside larger cities and major orchestras is still something of an event. When Maestro Lawrence Golan announced in the spring of 2013 that the Yakima Symphony Orchestra would present such a performance later that fall, many YSO musicians were apprehensive — could an orchestra in Yakima actually pull that off? The answer, we now know, proved to be yes, and during the past summer as Golan has conducted interviews for the orchestra’s “Stories From Home” series, many of those same musicians ranked that 2013 YSO performance among their most memorable (thankfully, not for all the same reasons as the premiere).

This Saturday evening, the public is invited to join Maestro Golan and several musicians who participated in that performance for a virtual round-table conversation about the “behind-the-scenes” experience of preparing and performing this groundbreaking masterwork, from the individual musical and technical challenges and the rehearsal process on stage to the performance itself. This event is the first of three free real-time virtual events recently announced for this fall that will be shared while live orchestral performances are still not permitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the next two will occur Oct. 10 and Nov. 14. Details and registration are available at www.ysomusic.org.

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. He and symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.

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