May 29 marks the 100th anniversary of the wonderfully scandalous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” when a near-riot broke out in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Performances of this still-spectacular work are being staged all over the world this month, and one of the most striking may have been Sunday evening’s performance by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, in the Atrium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. With its slashing angles, kinetic spaces and eruptive heights, the Atrium echoes “Rite’s” own brash and fearless modernism — and from that perspective, at least, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting.
“Echo,” though, is the operative word here, and the merciless acoustics of the huge Atrium presented a constant challenge to conductor Kim Allen Kluge. Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s picturesque “Scheherazade,” Kluge drew a sensuous, evocative performance from the Alexandria players, but between the endless reverberations and the low ambient rumble of the place, the music often sounded as if it were coming through the PA system at Union Station. Delicate lines were swallowed in the immensity, crisp gestures became muddy with echo, and a squalling infant in the opening section (parents: please turn off these devices before the performance!) suggested that concert halls do, in the end, have certain advantages.
But if Scheherazade’s subtleties suffered, the “Rite” positively thrived. This is elemental, even savage music, a ballet in which a pagan dancer dances herself to death, and the Atrium seemed to magnify Stravinsky’s driving, asymmetrical rhythms and punching, explosive gestures to an almost overpowering pitch. Kluge is superb at high-voltage works like this — if you haven’t heard him conduct, you’re missing a great musical experience — and turned in a taut, visceral reading, perhaps the most exciting heard here in years.
“Rite” was written as a dance, of course, and for this performance seven members of the Bowen McCauley Dance troupe joined the orchestra in a ballet choreographed by Lucy Bowen McCauley. Unfortunately, the Atrium itself seemed to work against them. Dressed in dun-colored costumes and dancing on a black mat, the dancers became increasingly difficult to see as the natural light of the Atrium darkened, and with the spotlights aimed elsewhere — at the art, at the audience, everywhere but the performers themselves — they finally turned into shadows, dancing in the dark. But what was visible was lyrical indeed, and kudos to the troupe for soldiering on — particularly Alicia Curtis, who perished quite beautifully in the Sacrificial Dance that closes the work.
Brookes is a freelance writer.