Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, 3D Performance (2nd Opinion)

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, 3D Performance (plus Varèse and Ligeti): CBSO, Ilan Volkov (Conductor), Julia Mach (Dancer) Klaus Obermaier (Concept, Artistic Direction, Choreography) ARS Electronica Futurelab (Interactive Design & Technical Development). Birmingham Symphony Hall, 22.4. 2011. (GR)

Billed at 45 min this must have been the shortest performance in the current Birmingham International Concert Season at the Symphony Hall, but what an amazing three-quarters of an hour! With two shows of the main attraction to get through on the evening of 21st April 2011, guest conductor Ilan Volkov was in no mood to waste time. He marched onto his platform and launched the CBSO into Varèse’s Tuning Up, so anxious to commence proceedings that two members of the orchestra had not even taken their places! And there had not been the conventional ‘A’ on the oboe either. Or was that all part of the make-up? Perhaps it wasn’t necessary for this four-minute piece of a sketch from the ‘Father of Electronic Music’ (completed by Chou Wen-Chung). Varèse wanted to ‘explode the musical world’ with fresh sounds; this piece certainly achieved that. The horns and sirens of the CBSO captured the madcap traffic commotions of NYPD. I came to get away from such hustle and bustle although I did catch the tuneful snatch of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The second trailer to the main event (again not advertised on the original THSH flyer) was Ligeti’s Lontano. Stanley Kubrick used some of Ligeti’s music for his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and this twelve-minute work also wreaked a sense of nihilism. I waited in vain for something to happen under the very deliberate baton of Volkov; some sort of resolution did come in the final notated bar of silence. With the main film coming up, these two fillers reminded me of the old ‘B’ movie makeweights.

At the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, Diaghilev intended to create a reaction to his ballet; he did so, infamously, and subsequent interpreters having been creating controversy ever since. Based upon pagan rituals and a human sacrifice to atone the God of Spring, it provides an ideal subject upon which to choreograph dance movement. Adding the dissonance and polyrhythmic mode of Stravinsky’s impression of an ice-quake as a Russian winter recedes, it makes a perfect choice for a media-mix of music, modern dance and 21st century technology.

Volkov reminded us to ‘press the red button’ and put on our glasses and be 3D ready. It was a truly interactive show, pleasing to both ear and eye. And Klaus Obermaier had given the work a new twist. The CBSO players were on the platform all right, but behind them was a giant screen facilitating the back projection of computer graphics. The images were generated in real-time from cameras that focused upon the single dancer, doing her routine in full view from the side ‘Black Box’. The artist in both real and virtual view was the award-winning contemporary dancer, Julia Mach. You might have thought that her every minute movement had been rehearsed to the nth degree, but no, the programme assured us that there was a degree of improvisation, variations that the tracking devices were able to convert into the imaginary world on screen. The technology of Chris Sugrue and the team from ARS Electronica Futurelab was that clever, all way above my head.

It began conventionally enough, the familiar melodic pattern in the opening bars of the Introduction hauntingly executed by bassoonist Gretha Tuls, an awakening that prompted a response from the full compliment of the CBSO woodwind section. From then on the images of Obermaier took over; the eyes had it. The culmination of Birmingham’s ‘Seeing Music’ series lived up to its name. However, not every perceived stereoscopic projection seemed to fit the music or Stravinsky’s sub-titles, but some did and admirably so.

After a few floppy gyrations of arms and legs, Mach’s movement was symbolised on the big screen with the addition of weird hieroglyphic shapes in red. Her rubbery contortions saluted the polytonality of Augurs of Spring, washing the sleep from eyes and hair. One trademark of the piece – the ‘savage’ ostinato of the horn section, well led as always by Elspeth Dutch – was raspingly clear. As the rhythm became more pronounced, so the limbs of Mach punched in time with its irregularity. The 3D effect came alive as a pair of beautiful legs and feet came towards us in Row K, two-footed tackles worthy of a Red card.

The swaying sensations of Spring Rounds were emphasised by the visions of Obermaier: the compulsive rhythm was synchronised to an undulating floor. Mach reminded me of a gymnast trying to keep her balance on a trampoline bed that’s been given a life of its own. Weird enough in two dimensions, the addition of the third made it even more mind-boggling. It was a magic carpet-ride on which Volkov wound up the CBSO strings and brass players to engage in the lethal blitz that followed, strains of Stravinsky that foreshadowed World War I. The flying 3D shapes returned, penetrating missiles akin to a game of paintballing, such was the suggestive power of Obermaier. I emerged unscathed from the battering.

Obermaier seemed to set The Sacrifice second part in outer space. Objects continued to invade the auditorium, but more in keeping with creation and the ‘Big Bang’ theory than any Mystic Circles of Young Girls. Mach in crouching and foetal positions became lost somewhere in the ether. Reversing the direction of this shower of meteorites, the images suggested that her immanent death would be to fall into a ‘black hole’. The following sequence of shots conjured up by the computer boys was one of the most ingenious; by focusing on the legs of Mach, they were able to isolate and multiply them, blur the ends and rejoin them to create letters that floated across the screen. A ‘K’ was particularly prominent, for what ever reason, the klopfen of the music? Nevertheless the dismembering and fragmentation of Mach tied in with her role as The Chosen One, and a very attractive one she made.

Stravinsky said he did not understand the notation of his music, but he felt it. It inspired Obermaier and Mach to a unique interpretation by adding digital technology to its primeval origins. It was an unforgettable evening – electrifying music, intoxicating live dance and thought provoking computer-generated images.

Geoff Read