Tough Crowd

Fistfight at Orchestra Echoes the
Brawl That Disrupted Rite of Spring

The ‘incident’ last Thursday at a concert hall in Chicago wouldn’t have attracted much notice had it occurred on the sidewalks outside of it or at the Adams/Wabash Metra Station nearby. Instead, it happened when the Symphony Orchestra was playing the second movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 2, conducted by the venerable Italian maestro Riccardo Muti.
To be sure, few heard when a patron punched another over some expensive box seats, and for those who know him, thank goodness that all the maestro did was to throw some frightening ‘dagger eyes’ at the whole thing. But almost a century ago, the story was much different and not two but the whole audience went into a frenzy brawl over the music, the dance and everything.

The first performance of Igor Stravinsky‘s ‘Rite of Spring,’ with choreography by the already legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, had the potential to be the event of that musical season of 1913 in Paris. Instead, it became known as ‘The Riot of the Rite,’ when the elegant and usually well behaved crowd began hitting each other with canes, umbrellas, and bare fists.
The two belligerent events share some curious common traces, such as the apparent raw emotions hidden under the surface of the skin of even the most refined music lover; how easy it is for anyone to miss the point of having a shared experience of any kind in the first place; and the fact that people can act like animals if only given the right conditions. Nothing new there.
Besides these superficial connections, though, they couldn’t be farther apart, even if they in fact had happened in the same century. Whereas last week’s was apparently about wrong seats and perhaps some annoyingly candy wrapping, on that May so many years ago the argument was all about what the music should be or not and, good heavens, could we not discuss those pagan costumes?
Not reading too much on it, but reading anyway, our differences now, at least in classic concert halls and art galleries, are mainly over seat prices and privilege and who’s wearing what. But a century ago, if you’d dared to play a dissonant note, I would’ve called the cops.

It seems that when they did arrive at the scene in Chicago, people thought someone was having a medical emergency, a way more likely scenario in such places. As it turned out, there was an age gap between the two fighters, making the brawl itself uneven: the ‘loud thump,’ according to witnesses, left the older man with a forehead cut. The younger, of course, left before police arrived.
Age demographics count in these sort of cases, and since the average classical music concertgoer’s age is 49, both men stand evenly south and north of that median. Think about that the next time you take your uncle Bob to a Mozart performance; you may have to defend your seats with your fists.
But what may have been the classiest performance of the night was the admirable restrain the maestro Muti exercised. Known as a temperamental bunch and, unlike soprano coloraturas, not the kind that leaves the stage in tears, musical conductors have a long and storied reputation of not taking lightly neither critics nor unruly attendees.
Perhaps it was another Italian maestro, the legendary Arturo Toscanini, who may have written the book on the subject. Equally known for his idiosyncratic interpretations of the classics, as for his uncontrollable tantrums, Toscanini wouldn’t excuse anyone, from under-rehearsed musicians, to hard-headed soloists, paparazzi, former lovers and, yes, coloratura sopranos, who often left the stage, etc.
His tempestuous personality and life, overflowing with passion and extreme gestures, would’ve made a splash in the age of YouTube but, wait: there’s plenty of it in there too. The more we watch his explosions and listen to his altercations on the podium, the more we respect Muti’s cool demeanor last week, at the Chicago Orchestra Hall.

When the first of many objects was thrown at the frighten dancers and musicians on stage, on that distant May 29, the reputation of Stravinsky as a radical revolutionary, which he most definitely was not, got etched in stone. It also helped usher a new sensibility that would change music forever, even if he was never an integral part of any of the musical movements of the period.
The ‘Rite’ was his third collaboration with fellow Russian Nijinsky, his partner, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the Ballet Russes company. It followed Firebird and Petrushka, and despite having enjoyed critical acclaim only years after the ‘scandal’ generated by the Rite, Stravinsky never really fulfill his potential as a revolutionary genius.
He remained faithful to traditional music genres for most of his career, instead, and before long, more radical movements such as serial composition and atonality all but ostracized his achievements. Ironically, after a period dabbling in 16th and 17th music forms, Stravinsky became a late, and not particularly distinguished, adopter of Serialism, a movement he could’ve championed in his youth.
But 1913 in Paris was a place of strong passions about art and performance and literature, and the urban, cosmopolitan city was living its last moments of exhilarating enthusiasm and optimism, before the war came to spoil the mood. Which doesn’t mean that art lovers were willing to take the changes happening in quick succession at face value.
To Stravinsky angular and full of dissonance and rhythmic changes, Nijinsky added a raw, almost pagan-like (to the late 1800s sensibilities) choreography, full of sex innuendos and ritualistic celebrations, including what appeared then as an unacceptable ‘sacrifice’ of a virginal dancer. It was just too much.
Those who didn’t storm the place on the premiere, left it angry as the slightly older composer Camile Saint-Saëns is reported to have done. The riot at the Rite was a scandal fit for the era but it was far from being the only one. Just a few years earlier, the group of painters not yet called Impressionists had also cause controversy with their first show, which marked a departure from the old mold.
Similar displays of radicalism and intolerance were at play against the Surrealists, the ‘maldite’ Rimbaud, Baudellaire and Artaud and so many of the great artists of the period. If by reading about them, you feel as if you’d like to have lived through those times, you’re not alone: Woody Allen’s most celebrated movie of the last years has been about that special era in Paris too.
Of course, time showed that such a reaction only helped the artists in the long run, and even before that, most of them had established themselves to worldwide audiences. In other words, they got rich. But before that, crowds were known to get all worked up about a single oil canvas, a strange chord progression, a salacious passage on a book.
More than artistic ideas, some of the dominant figures of the period, such as Sandra Benhnardt and Isadora Duncan, to name but two dancers, went as far as making their own personal lives into their work in progress. And received praise and derision from their audiences in equal measures.
The experience of listening to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps today is a radically different one, even without a ballet to boot. For one, the shock has been well absorbed through years of musical innovation, and even some of his then visionary uses of percussion and rhythm to mark body movements are already part of the DNA of pretty much every contemporary composer, and dancer for that matter.
It still a rewarding experience, though. Taken into perspective, Stravinsky’s work is of a gentle, melodic and rigorously tonal kind. The crowds didn’t know then, as we do now, that their fury would be restricted to a footnote of history, an anecdote about a quainter time, while Stravinsky’s work would outlive them all and even survive a Walt Disney truncated adaptation of it, used in Fantasia.
As for Maestro Riccardo Muti, he did record a version of the Rite that still can be found around. Proving the work’s endurance, it’s also possible to expect big celebrations on the centennial of its premiere next year. Then again, the only riots that can be expected, though, may be at a transit station over subway tickets or something.

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