A 'Rite of Spring' that's a feast for the senses

Rite of Spring", The Philadelphia Orchestra with Ridge Theater. February 21, 2012. PHOTO: The Philadelphia Orchestra
Rite of Spring", The Philadelphia Orchestra with Ridge Theater. February 21, 2012. PHOTO: The Philadelphia Orchestra
Posted: February 23, 2013

However brain-bending, the Ridge Theater Company's staging of The Rite of Spring ultimately proved at Thursday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert that this ultra-graphic ballet score needs no visual aids.

Yet Stravinsky's self-sufficient music should have them every so often. The Dan Safer choreography reminded you the piece is about human sacrifice. But what the music says to the imagination is so fantastical that the most engaging element of the staging was farthest afield from the basic scenario.

Apart from the pagan ritual depicted in the choreography, the video element, seen on overhead screens, showed the explosive century heralded by the ballet's 1913 premiere. Bill Morrison employed his familiar vocabulary of decaying black-and-white archival film manipulated in phantasmagorical ways, this time in a dual-screen effect. Each side reflected the other, with movement that showed a world - ships, landscapes, icebergs - alternately flying apart or colliding.

In the ballet's second section, Laurie Olinder's video had two layers of high-def plants superimposed over, the layers often moving in opposite directions with a dreamy, underwater aura.

On the stage, a troupe of female dancers told the story of human sacrifice but felt like an unneeded layer. Though aerialist Anna Kichtchenko seemed in command of all her moves, I was distracted by fearing for her safety (having seen many stage injuries).

And the music itself? Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra were in top form, though with so much happening around them this performance was more a headlong sprint than a contoured look at what the music is saying.

Nézet-Séguin tends to avoid typical sharp attacks - the opposite of Pierre Boulez's machine-tooled Stravinsky; musical events simply appear and make their points on the merit of their innate substance. But this approach wasn't 100 percent realized, at least to the degree it was in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G earlier in the program.

The playfully intricate piece, which so often wobbles in performance, opened with a tempo set by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet that was both spirited and relaxed, allowing everyone room to explore details and worry less about ensemble.

Nézet-Séguin stuck to Thibaudet like a Siamese twin - and the pianist has rarely played with so much urbane freedom. All around him were myriad orchestral details blending beautifully into one another, with the charm that results from not always trying to seize your attention.

Opening the concert was a Bach/Stokowski transcription, some of which can seem neither here nor there, falling between two polarities with a thud.

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor isn't one. With an orchestration that sounds more like Rachmaninoff than Bach, the piece becomes its own hybrid. And need I say that it fit the orchestra perfectly?

 Additional performances:

8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. "The Rite of Spring" will be performed without visual elements at 8 p.m. next Saturday. Tickets: $32-$137. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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