While watching to the Houston Symphony's performance of "The Rite of Spring" Friday night, Aftermath's mind kept coming back to one image - the story from late last year of the wild white-tail fawn that accidentally found its way into the lion enclosure at the National Zoo. Warning: Some people might find the video in that link disturbing, but the honest truth is that a lioness' instinct to hunt a young deer is simply part of nature's circular course, as evidenced by the fact that, amongst the crowd watching the drama in the video unfold, some are rooting for the deer, while others are rooting for the cats. Under the direction of Hans Graf, the Houston Symphony was able to perfectly balance the often-conflicting story lines in Igor Stravinsky's ballet about a young virgin who dances herself to death surrounded by a ring of pagan elders. "They were sacrificing her to propriate the god of spring," Stravinsky later wrote of the image in his biography. The score, full of dissonance, unpredictable rhythm changes and extended sections that push the various instruments to the limits of their range, at times feel like two separate songs being performed at once, only joined by repeating motifs here and there. The opening notes emphasize the sad hopefulness of the prey - the virgin, or the deer - while the relentless pursuit of the quick strings throughout are reminiscent of every evil-villain leitmotif you've ever heard, be it in blockbuster movies (John Williams' score for Jaws and Norman Bates' trademark stabbing strings clearly owe something to Stravinsky) or cartoon. The only trouble is that both strains are so engaging and adamant you aren't sure who to root for. Legend has it that during the original 1913 performance of the ballet, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had to stand on a chair on the side of the stage, shouting numbers to the dancers so they could keep up with the rhythm changes. Graf's control of the Houston Symphony was delicate yet stirring. Just when Aftermath thought we'd get a change to relax and breathe in the story, the drums and bass strings would boom out and send our heart racing again. The effect was not unlike being chased ourselves.
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In the first half of the program the Symphany was joined by visiting pianist Garrick Ohlsson (right), who performed Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3," an apparently challenging work for the keys. The wildly oscillating piece was an appropriate introduction to the riotous (literally) work that made Stravinksy famous. After a standing ovation, Ohlsson, the 1970 winner of the Chopin International Piano Competition and is an apparent expert of the Romantic composer (and beloved in Chopin's native Poland), returned to the stage to perform a solo of Chopin's "Waltz #3." During intermission, he stood in the lobby, honoring requests for autographs. You can watch a '70s-era restaging of the original choreography for "Rite of Spring" in full on Youtube.