Getting it Rite the First Time

As an occasional feature of the Eastman Blog, I’ll ask various Eastman musicians or other guests about their first encounter with a particular piece or genre of music. (Yes, this is blatant theft of the New York Times’ “First Crush” feature.) In slightly late observance of the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I asked Brad Lubman, director of Musica Nova, about his first encounter with this incendiary piece.

My first encounter with The Rite of Spring was hearing a recording by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic in 1977, when I was about 14 years old. I had recently become obsessed with classical music, particularly Mahler, Debussy, and Beethoven.  Several people told me I should listen to the Rite of Spring but that it’s a very dissonant piece.  Naturally I was very curious, having read about its legendary status.  I was immediately very taken with the piece, with its fierce originality and (what seemed at the time) complexity.

I soon obtained a score and tried to follow it while listening to the record.  I also bought more recordings: Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, Solti and the Chicago Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony. Within a few years I owned at least a dozen recordings of The Rite of Spring, and in my high school and college years became completely obsessed with Stravinsky and his music.

I first conducted The Rite of Spring in April 1995.  I was 32 and finishing my tenure as music director of the Stony Brook Symphony, the graduate orchestra at Stony Brook University. Since I had been so obsessed with the piece for so many years, I felt comfortable enough to conduct it from memory.  I have had the opportunity to conduct The Rite of Spring several times at Eastman, in 1998 with the New Eastman Symphony, and then in 2000, 2006, and 2012 with the Eastman Philharmonia.  I also conducted Klaus Obermaier’s production for solo dancer and computer-live-interactive video with the Taiwan National Symphony, and last season another interesting production with puppeteer Basil Twist and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

I don’t find any particular challenges in conducting The Rite of Spring at this point; it’s a lot of fun and always a very intense experience. The first time one leads it, however, one is often grappling with the famous Danse sacrale and its changing meters and syncopations. Each time I have done the piece at Eastman, the students have been thrilled and excited by it.  Even though it’s already 100 years old, it still brings out such a high level of enthusiasm, obsession, and devotion in young musicians. And in myself……I’m still as crazy about the piece as ever!