A Century of Springtime With Stravinsky

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This spring marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most notorious premieres in the history of classical music, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Presented as a ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, the music deliberately pushed the envelope of harmony, rhythm and orchestration.

The audience reaction at the Paris 1913 premiere was ferocious. Arguments broke out, physical altercations, hooting and hollering -- Stravinsky left his seat in the audience bewildered and hurt, and retreated to the backstage wings.

The ballet's storyline was written by the composer using ancient Russian tribal imagery, including a famous scene in which a young virgin dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods.

Everything about this project was intended to shock and the choreography was apparently the most shocking, turning the old mannerisms of ballet on their heads in favor of a style that still looks awkwardly new today.

While the audience's reaction was certainly due to the combination of both radical music and radical dancing, it is easy to imagine a similar outburst just for the dancing alone.

Stravinsky was not looking to shock for its own sake. He was charting a new musical direction that drew heavily on folk music and deliberately primitive influences. He wanted the music to sound both organic and elegant, an authenticity that was not stuck in a museum case but instead transformed the concert hall into a scene of bloody ritual.

Stravinsky had calculated his music to push the boundary of popular taste, but not break it. He expected The Rite to succeed.

Wisely, after the first run of performances with Nijinsky's choreography, Stravinsky began offering the work to orchestras as a concert piece -- no dancing. From that point it was widely accepted as a masterpiece.

It's important for any businessman -- especially those in the arts and especially those whose business is transformative innovation -- to know his audience, an intimate instinctive knowledge that understands what customers want before they do themselves.

In addition to his unerring craftsmanship and imagination, Stravinsky had that keen business sense. Throughout his career he led the style of the day. Other composers, younger ones, perhaps exceeded his innovations, but none exceeded his influence.

What he did not have was a clear sense of the visual components that could accompany his music. His few staged works have been successful from a visual perspective largely for the visual artist's ability to grok Stravinsky. Never the other way around.

Here again, Stravinsky showed a great wisdom by sticking with collaborators that he could trust, George Balanchine in particular. Otherwise, he steered clear of staged works or created strict limitations for how the visual aspect could be interpreted.

But in at least one other instance, the collaboration proved rocky: Walt Disney's fanciful reinterpretation of The Rite excerpts in the movie Fantasia. Stravinsky agreed to the project but was furious with the results and sued the cartoonist. (He lost.) Disney had thrown away Stravinsky's primitive, violent ritual and replaced it with dinosaurs -- kid-friendly but still violent, expressive of the destructive powers of natural regeneration.

Stravinsky didn't think Disney perfectly captured the mood of the music, even if that meant rearranging some of its parts. Within the context of the film, Stravinsky's music was well-represented.

Ironically, one of the major premieres this year that could possibly approach The Rite's impact (but won't) is an opera about Walt Disney. The Perfect American is an opera by Philip Glass based on a book by Peter Stephan Jungk that examines the flaws as well as the polished facets in the character of the entertainment empire founder. Reviews are mixed, but few expected anything like Stravinsky's early genius or even the robust innovation of Glass's early work.

Originally scheduled for a premiere at the New York City Opera, The Perfect American has instead opened in Madrid, another victim of the crumbling financial infrastructure of American classical music.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch the world premiere of Glass' "The Perfect American" at the Teatro Real de Madrid.)

The consistent failure of funding and the generally conservative nature of audiences has meant that, at least here, The Rite of Spring is still the most daring work many U.S. concertgoers will ever hear.

That notoriety almost certainly won't last another century. But serious challengers so far are few.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.