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When Igor Stravinsky began composing The Rite of Spring, his ballet for vast symphonic forces, he could hear the music in his head but couldn't quite figure out how to write it down. It was just too complicated.
Today, 100 years after The Rite's premiere, the fearless musicians of Imani Winds make it all sound remarkably easy, given that they've condensed Stravinsky's massive walls of sound down to just five instruments: bassoon, clarinet, flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe and French horn.
Make no mistake: Many of the jagged rhythms and crunching chords remain viscerally intact, albeit on a more intimate scale. As the group huddled behind Bob Boilen's desk, bassoonist Monica Ellis noted the opposing ratios, saying, "It's apropos in some strange way that we are playing one of the most massive pieces in some of the smallest instrumentation in one of the smallest settings that it could possibly be played in."
The setting might be small, but in this clever arrangement by Jonathan Russell, we learn that a wind quintet, when called upon, can make a mighty and sonorous wail. Just listen to how the Imanis cap off "Dances of the Young Girls" with the entire quintet in full cry (at about 4:30 into the video). The bassoon repeats a fat bass line while the clarinet runs its snaky scales. The piccolo, in piercing chirps, serves as a foil to a frenzied oboe and snarling "whoops" from the French horn.
But not everything in The Rite is all pound and grind. Stravinsky's transparent introduction, almost impressionistic, is a fluttering aviary of winds — even in the original — with individual colorings for each instrument. It's all rendered beautifully here by Imani Winds, musicians brave enough to play David to Igor Stravinsky's imposing Goliath.
Selections from The Rite of Spring:
- Augurs of Spring
- Dances of the Young Girls
- Ritual of Abduction
- Spring Rounds
- Dance of the Earth
- Sacrificial Dance: The Chosen One
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Stephen Thompson; Editor: Gabriella Garcia-Pardo; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Becky Lettenberger, Stephen Thompson; photo by Marie McGrory/NPR