"It was one of those things you never think of happening," says Severine Neff, the Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina.
"It" is The Rite of Spring at 100, Carolina Performing Arts' wildly ambitious, orgiastic celebration of one of the signal works of modern culture, Igor Stravinsky's explosive 1913 musical composition and the ballet that accompanied it.
Neff inadvertently sparked the idea in 2008 in a moment of pique while talking with Emil Kang, the director of Carolina Performing Arts. Neff had hoped to interest Kang in performances marking an important anniversary in the work of Arnold Schoenberg, another Modernist composer who, she says, "was the nemesis of Stravinsky."
When Kang rejected the proposal, the Schoenberg scholar threw up her hands and exclaimed, "Oh, just do The Rite of Spring!"
"From her mouth, to me," says Kang, finishing the story but declining credit for the idea—even as Neff insists that the series is "really Emil's baby." Clearly, it took more than one person to put together the biggest, most expensive university performing arts series the Triangle will have ever seen. Of the $3 million budget, just $500,000 is expected to come from ticket sales. The Mellon Foundation awarded $750,000 last year to support the series and related course work. The remaining $1.75 million is being raised from private donors.
But an entire year focused on The Rite of Spring? Why should you care? Experiencing even one of the events inspired by this walloping piece of music in this year's season should convince you that you do, the "why" of it be damned. The audience rioted at the Paris premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps in May 1913, which featured the fabled Ballets Russes dancing Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography in costumes and stage design by Nicholas Roerich. Working with ancient themes and archetypes, these artists had, as the Modernist slogan goes, "made it new." Today, when we are accustomed to a pervasive atmosphere of airbrushed faux sexuality, the ferocious nature of human desire and ritual, heard in the music and seen in the dance of The Rite of Spring, can be just as stunning as it must have been in the City of Light on the final night of La Belle Epoque. The music has remained a powerful influence on other artists throughout the intervening years and, in an almost preternatural way, lends itself to the enterprise of being remade—made new again—by other musicians and dancers. Just last year, for instance, Duke Performances commissioned jazz trio The Bad Plus to tear apart and remake the score, and the result nearly blew the roof off Reynolds Theater at its premiere.
There is nothing that compares to being present when a new artwork makes its first public appearance, and audiences will have many opportunities to experience that exhilaration in The Rite at 100 series. Carolina Performing Arts has commissioned 12 new works that will premiere in UNC's Memorial Hall.
"Commissioning is one of the most important things we do," says Kang. Protected economically under the aegis of the university, "we have an obligation to forward the arts. Art should be studied, but also made."
The first of these commissioned premieres is also the priciest ($59–$139): The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma will play Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Taking inspiration from Roerich, the original designer of Stravinsky's ballet, who traveled widely in Central Asia, the Uzbeki-born composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky has written Sacred Signs, based on Roerich's poetry and inspired by the folk tunes Stravinsky used in The Rite.
Carolina Performing Arts has also commissioned visual artist Hilary Leben to create the accompanying video component. The rest of the program should be at least as wonderful, and almost as new, with recent works by Vijay Iyer, John Zorn and Colin Jacobsen.
If you can't quite make that ticket price, go for the incredible deal on Nov. 16, when for as little as $19 you can hear the sizzling string quartet Brooklyn Rider, with special guests Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden. They'll play Stravinsky, Bartok, new works by their guests and by John Zorn, as well as a new piece by violinist Colin Jacobsen, with choreography by John Heginbotham.
Or, if you crave cello, but sadly can't afford Yo-Yo, try the avant-garde "CelloOpera" Elsewhere, with Maya Beiser, cello, and vocalist Helga Davis ($25). Not part of The Rite at 100, this concert is part of Carolina Performing Arts' "ordinary" programming featuring fabulous concerts of all types, from the deeply emotional violinist Joshua Bell; to The Punch Brothers with Chris Thile, mandolin; to Brazilian singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés; to a Beethoven program by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, with the Monteverdi Choir.
Most of Carolina Performing Arts' dance programming for The Rite at 100 will occur in the spring (and it will be mind-blowing), but Oct. 14 will see the Canadian Compagnie Marie Chouinard performing Chouinard's choreography of The Rite of Spring, along with her interpretation of Nijinsky's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, set to music by Debussy. Prepare to be shocked. Highly recommended for passionate fans of contemporary dance.
October will be a particularly busy month offstage as well. Neff has organized an academic conference called Reassessing the Rite, which is free and open to the public. What the performance series does live and on stage for months, inspecting various facets of The Rite, the conference will do Oct. 25–28 with scholarly papers and discussions. Neff was a Fulbright scholar in Moscow, teaching Schoenberg to Russians when his music was first unbanned, and her contacts at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory have made it possible for UNC to also sponsor a similar conference there. A concert by the Conservatory's Studio for New Music Ensemble will kick off the conference in Chapel Hill. But if you want to hear the magnificent noise of The Rite itself—full orchestral version—save your ducats for the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg, maestro Valery Gergiev conducting. It will play Oct. 29 and 30, but The Rite will be on the second program only.
While Carolina Performing Arts dives deep into the pool of a single artwork, Duke Performances is presenting a less thematic season than those of the previous couple of years. Director Aaron Greenwald is an extraordinarily talented impresario with a subtle intellect and exquisite taste that extends through the broad range of performing arts. He has previously put together not just single themes but multiple themes twisted into helical structures stretched over the months. This year, no theme dominates the eclectic mix, but all that spiral-twist energy had to go somewhere when released, so DP's special blend of "cultural sustenance" is spreading all over Durham.
Reynolds Theater and Nelson Music Room on Duke's campus will be in use, but you will also be able to hear music in venues that fit, attitudinally speaking. Love gospel music? Hear it in the former sanctuary at the Hayti Heritage Center. Blazing trumpet? Head to the Casbah. Crazy for those bad boys in The Bad Plus? Get up close at Motorco, where Meshell Ndegeocello also will play, the second of her two nights in town. And if you are interested in new music, do not miss the women of Anonymous 4, singing David Lang's love fail in the First Presbyterian Church. The acoustics are perhaps even more beautiful than the stained glass.
Duke Performances will also host a residency by Meredith Monk and her company, giving her time, space and technicians to develop a new work, On Behalf of Nature. There will be master classes and conversations, a free talk with demonstrations and video at the Nasher Museum on Oct. 25 and a full theater performance in Reynolds on Nov. 2. If you've never seen this artist, who has worked for 50 years in the heart of contemporary multimedia and fits in no genre but her own, go. If you've already seen and heard her, no one needs to tell you.
Other standouts: Pandit Birju Majaraj, 75 years old and possibly the greatest Kathak dancer ever. The young Polish Chopin Prize winner Rafal Blechacz playing Chopin on one of Duke's majestic Steinways. The JACK Quartet playing new music in the dark in Sheafer Lab Theater. And not least, Greenwald's secret revealed: "One of my great passions is Gypsy brass band music," he admits. As part of Fanfare Ciocarlia's first U.S. tour in a decade, the 12-piece, Romani-singing group will play in Duke Gardens Sept. 23. At $18, it is absolutely the best performance deal of the season.
While Duke Performances is taking it to the streets in Durham, our great land-grant university is sharing its performance work with the whole state. NCSU Center Stage director Sharon Moore does wonders with her tiny budget each year—"bringing a liberal arts component to the state's premier science and tech university," she says—and making Stewart Theatre the best place in Raleigh to see contemporary dance. This fall will see the return of Nicholas Leichter with Bryan Strimpel, as well as the zippy Parsons Dance Company.
But the Center Stage highlight of the fall will be a concert that will be the culmination of the collaboration between violinist/composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and North Carolina singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett.
"N.C. State is all about serving the state," says Moore. "We wanted to take that literally," by taking performance to the people. Under the auspices of Center Stage, Roumain and Dossett traveled the state together, collecting stories, listening to sounds. The resultant CD, The Collide, will be released Sept. 4, and the pair will tour to smaller venues from sea to mountains, fetching up in Stewart Theatre Nov. 17 for their finale, and Center Stage's final concert there until student center renovations are completed in 2015.
Programs will continue in other venues, because, as UNC's Severine Neff says, unequivocally, "there is no culture without music." And without culture, we would be mere murderous beasts—and the maiden in The Rite of Spring would have been sacrificed for naught.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Parting the curtain into modernity."