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Joffrey Ballet's 'The Rite of Spring': Conductor Tito Muñoz talks Stravinsky, Ballet and The Cleveland Orchestra

by Steve Sucato
August 8, 2013
Blossom Music Center
1145 W Steels Corners Rd
Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223
(330) 920-8040
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.
Mention the word "riot" and images of political and social upheaval come to mind, not a ballet. But that is by many accounts what happened on May 29, 1913 in Paris when Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered Vaslav Nijinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) with music by Igor Stravinsky.

The extent of the Paris audience's displeasure over Nijinsky's pagan sacrificial story and modernist choreography not to mention Stravinsky's groundbreaking, dissonant score that led, according to press reports, to objects being thrown at the stage, blows exchanged, and at least one person being challenged to a duel is a matter of debate. What was not in debate was that the incident became the stuff of legend.

It is likely the extent of the "riot" has been exaggerated over the past century. Some like former Ballet Russes dancer Lydia Sokolova, who performed at the ballet's premiere, indicated in a 1965 interview that the audience may have come predisposed for an outburst; hinting at accounts that expectations over the ballet's story and Nijinsky's unconventional choreographic style seen in his prior ballet's like Petrouchka and Jeux, which received unfavorable reviews just two weeks before the The Rite of Spring's opening, played a role in some audience member's instant disapproval of the ballet.

"They had got themselves all ready," said Sokolova. "They didn't even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began."

Stravinsky was of a different opinion saying in 1962 that things got out of hand after the ballet's overture "when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down (Danse des adolescentes), the storm broke."

When the trouble actually began, before, during or after the ballet's overture is also a matter of debate but there can be little doubt that Stravinsky's revolutionary music for the ballet was potent fuel for the "riot's" fire.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of this historic ballet, Chicago's Joffrey Ballet brings its celebrated 1987 reconstructed production of the Ballets Russes original to Cuyahoga Valley National Park's Blossom Music Center August 17 & 18 in collaboration with The Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Tito Muñoz.

I interviewed Muñoz about the upcoming production and his approach to Stravinsky's iconic score.

Steve Sucato: I read an article in which you said that nowadays orchestras tend to play the score as Stravinsky wrote it. You also said you had listened to a recording of Stravinsky conducting a performance of The Rite of Spring. In that recording did Stravinsky religiously stick to his own score as a conductor?

Tito Muñoz: When Stravinsky was around conducting his piece, orchestras had a much more difficult time with his music than they do now. A lot of the musical/rhythmical language is much more second-nature to us now than it was then, so it's sometimes hard to decipher what his intentions may have been when listening to his recordings of the piece. Recording quality certainly plays a huge role as well. And the score itself has gone through much transformation since it was originally written.

SS: Did you learn anything from his conducting that helped you in your approach to his score?

TM: The main thing I've taken away from his performances of the piece, as with his other music, is his attention to detail, and the connection between the written notes and the emotional intention behind it. Stravinsky, as with any composer, would have that special insight to his own work… all the underlying reasons for all the ink on the page that another musician/interpreter would have to search for.

SS: Since Stravinsky's score is no longer considered a technical challenge for musicians to play, especially of the caliber of The Cleveland Orchestra's musicians, what are you looking to pull out of their performances in The Rite of Spring?

TM: The wonderful thing about this idea - that the technical challenges are very small - is that we can really immerse ourselves in this music and pull out something raw and visceral. The Cleveland Orchestra has a long history with The Rite of Spring, even having recorded it several times with notable conductors (including Pierre Boulez who was very close with Stravinsky and his music), so they know this piece very well and will bring that history and experience with them in every performance. This is a piece I love very much, and I also know it very well, so it will be such a great honor for me to bring my own vision of it to them.

SS: The orchestra configuration for The Rite of Spring uses 100 or so musicians. I understand that is a bit more than the usual orchestra numbers for other works. Does that have any effect on your preparation and/or approach to conducting it?

TM: Not at all. The approach is the same… there are just more notes for me to learn!

SS: You have had some prior experience conducting for the ballet. How is it different for you and the orchestra?

TM: One very important difference for orchestral musicians when accompanying ballet is that they are totally unaware of the nuances in the dance, unlike accompanying for any other medium. For example, when I accompany a soloist in a concerto or an opera from the pit, the orchestra accompanies them with me; they can hear what the soloist/singer is doing and my gestures are then just a reinforcement of what we are all experiencing together. This is the ideal way to work as an orchestra. The problem with ballet, in this sense, is that the orchestra cannot see or hear the dancers… and even if they could see them, the language of momentum and movement is so different from our own musical versions of those, that they might not necessarily know what exactly they're accompanying. Therefore, they are just following me "blindly," so to speak. If I go faster, they just have to go faster with me, etc. I am a middleman, and not a part of an orchestra's own momentum, which can be terribly uncomfortable for any orchestral musician. The challenge for me, then, is to try and anticipate the stage so that I can work my gestures in a musical way and not surprise the orchestra if I can help it.

SS: I have known some conductors who have refused to play the score for a ballet in any other manner than how it was written. How much leeway do you allow in changing tempos etc. to accommodate the dancers' needs, if any?

TM: As with any collaboration, there's certainly some give and take with regards to tempos, etc. Ideally, a conductor would work with a choreographer in a ballet's initial creative stages to make sure that the dance fits as best as possible with ideal musical conditions. There certainly are tempos that can be much more difficult for musicians to play for both musical and physical reasons. One example would be long held notes for the winds and brass instruments, which might be impossible to sustain if a tempo is too slow. Certain articulations in the string instruments may also be more difficult, since the bow does rely on gravity when it needs to bounce off the string, and therefore the momentum needed to make that happen will rely on the tempo taken, much like what dancers need for certain jumps or twirls. That being said, once a piece is choreographed and the dancers have learned their choreography, I have to be much more flexible with my concept of a piece in order to accommodate the needs of the dancers. Physics is physics, and if something is too fast or too slow, the musicians have to understand what that means for the dancers and accommodate accordingly. There have been times when I have had to push for a slight change in a choreography because of something musical that, because of many years of performances, might have been exaggerated to the point of musical uncomfortability, but that has been rare, and generally the music is there to support the dance.

SS: How much rehearsal time will you and the orchestra have with the Joffrey Ballet?

TM: We will have a day of tech rehearsals and a dress rehearsal on the day of the first performance. I will also have a separate rehearsal with the orchestra alone. Before seeing the orchestra, I will also spend a couple of days in Chicago with the dancers to observe their rehearsals.

SS: What do you feel makes for a great performance of The Rite of Spring?

TM: I think the answer to this question is the answer for any piece of music: honesty and integrity. Stravinsky wrote as much down as he could. Being "true to the score" is a very cliche phrase we hear a lot as musicians; it's something we all should strive to do but, as with any kind of interpreting, it will always be personal and subjective. I think that as long as you have a clear vision and a willingness to put yourself out there and interpret a piece through your own life experiences, then an audience will feel that. I think that's almost always what makes a great performance…of anything.

In addition to The Rite of Spring, the programs will include Jerome Robbins' energetic ballet Interplay with music by Morton Gould and choreographer Stanton Welch's contemporary ballet Son of Chamber Symphony with music of the same name by John Adams.

The Joffrey Ballet and The Cleveland Orchestra present The Rite of Spring, Interplay and Son of Chamber Symphony, 8 p.m., Saturday, August 17 and Sunday, August 18, 2013. Blossom Music Center, 1145 W Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223. Pavilion Tickets: $35, $45, $55; Box Seats: $100. Lawn Tickets: $20 (Under 18s Free). 800-686-1141, 216-231-1111 or clevelandorchestra.com.
Joffrey Ballet in 'The Rite of Spring'.

Joffrey Ballet in "The Rite of Spring".

Photo © & courtesy of Herbert Migdoll


Joffrey Ballet in 'Rite of Spring'.

Joffrey Ballet in "Rite of Spring".

Photo © & courtesy of Herbert Migdoll


The Joffrey Ballet and The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, Tito Muñoz conducting 2010.

The Joffrey Ballet and The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, Tito Muñoz conducting 2010.

Photo © & courtesy of Roger Mastroianni

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