Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring
Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.
Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.
The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.
When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.
The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring. It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.
Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass, Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.