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Earth Awakened: Causing a Sensation

Many of us remember the controversy that raged in 1999 when the Brooklyn Museum launched a show featuring some of the most in-your-face art ever made. There was the decomposing calf’s head with flies and maggots, and the image of a British child killer smudged with the hand prints of actual children. Reacting to the opening of “Sensation,” Mayor Giuliani threatened to evict the organization from its premises, and it had to go to court to get the money allotted to it in the budget for that year. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people flocked to the show. Ah, those were the days. Now comes Earth Awakened, the opening show of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 52nd season. Of the three pieces comprising Earth Awakened, the most notable comes to us courtesy of a Russian composer who died in 1971. The performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Brooklyn Philharmonic on February 3, 2007 may not provoke the same kind of outrage and media frenzy as “Sensation,” but that is because our notion of what is shocking has changed over the years, not because Stravinsky’s masterpiece lacks a revolutionary pedigree. Let us recall that when The Rite of Spring opened in Paris in 1913, as the accompaniment to a dance by Serge Diaghilev’s troupe, the Ballets Russes, it sparked a riot among the concert-goers that the police, by some accounts, were not able to put down. It wasn’t just that the urgent cadences of the violins and cellos, rising from one level of tension to the next, captured the mania of a continent rushing toward war at a breakneck speed. Even more provocatively, the Russian-born composer’s chef d’oeuvre was tailored to accompany depictions of fertility rituals and other rites of pagans in Russia long ago. The rites are unorthodox, not to say bizarre, and what is more, the old society in which they take place is different from, yet in some ways uncomfortably like, the Russia of following ages captured in histories of varying degrees of seriousness and merit. Ever since the prince Rurik and his two brothers accepted an invitation in 862 A.D. to expand the kingdom of Rus by moving into lands held by scattered Slavs and Finns, the country’s story has been one of a central authority doing its best to exert its control over far-flung territories marked by thousands of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences. The Rurik trio of legend was an antecedent of Ivan the Terrible, who exacted steep tributes and purged officials in areas that resisted control by Moscow, as well as of such non-Rurik bodies as Peter the Great’s modernizing state (which built St. Petersburg in 1703) and Nicholas I’s expansionist empire (which waged war with Britain in the Crimea). The state’s eternal struggle with the nomads and brigands of the steppe runs from before the days of Bolotnikov and Pugachev right down to the present. In the war against Chechen rebels, and in the massacre of nearly 400 schoolchildren in Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004, echoes resound of past struggles between central authority and various rebels and cults. This leitmotif of Russia’s history is part of what has made The Rite of Spring powerful and, for audiences in decades past, disturbing. Enacting the dance for which Stravinsky has so kindly provided music will be the company led by Brooklyn-based choreographer Nicholas Leichter. The group is called NichlosLeichterDance, and it has an aptitude for shows involving a high degree of energy. Leichter, who has taught at venues including festivals in Russia, Belgium, and Taiwan, and who has benefited from an NEA grant, holds a B.A. in dance from Connecticut College. It is no surprise that the organizers of Earth Awakened wanted him on board. The 52nd season of the Brooklyn Philharmonic boasts other shows of interest to music lovers of classical and modern tastes. Earth Awakened also includes Australian composer Peter Schulthorpe’s Mangrove and Earth Cry, which evoke the lush and haunting vistas of the Outback. Then on March 10, 2007, Bridge to the Beyond takes listeners into the world of Osvaldo Golouv’s mystical and spiritual pieces Last Round and Dreams & Prayers of Isaac the Blind, complemented by Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major. On May 12, The Ride to Redemption offers an evening of familiar but no less welcome classics, featuring Mozart’s great Exsultate jubilate, K. 165, Hindemith’s renowned Mathis der Mater, and Henryk Gorecki’s acclaimed Symphony No. 3. The upcoming season of the Brooklyn Philharmonic is a sensation in its own right—decomposing calf’s head or not. The Brooklyn Philharmonic is at 138A Court Street in Brooklyn, (718) 488-5700, Various ticket packages and deals are available for the upcoming season. For more information about tickets, call BAM Ticket Services at (718) 636-4100.

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