In 1913, Igor Stravinsky premiered “The Rite of Spring” in Paris. Stravinsky himself was a fairly unknown composer at the time, a young guy, when Sergei Diaghilev essentially recruited him to begin work for his Ballets Russe company. The piece was the third in a series he had created throughout the previous three years, and as those who may have seen a performance of the ballet would note, it’s awfully heavy on early 20th-century Russia and it’s awfully heavy on the complications of, among other things, sacrifice.
Actually, if you’ve already seen a performance of the ballet … what in the name of “Black Swan” are you doing reading a silly pop music review in 72 Hours?!
Anyway, the composition has gone down as one of the greatest pieces of music the past 100 years, and you don’t have to be Ludwig van Beethoven’s grandson to already know that. Its time/meter changes are utterly revolutionary, considering when the thing was put together, and its influence within the advancement of popular music is beyond measurable at this point. Stravinsky didn’t just create a monster with “The Rite of Spring.” He created immortality.
That’s why the decision of Frederick-based Darryl Brenzel to take the piece on in the form of jazz was … well, it was a little unprecedented. And he knew as much, too. “My first thought? I’m in big trouble,” Brenzel writes in the liner notes for his vision of the composition he titled “The Re(W)rite of Spring.” “How in the world am I going to figure this all out and turn it into a work for big band?”
Luckily for the arranger and director, he eventually figured it out. And luckily for those who enjoy a little swing with their early 1900s ballet and orchestral creations, he even managed to get it recorded, too. With the help of the Mobtown Modern Big Band, Brenzel pulls off the unthinkable: He re-imagines a classical work so magnificently and creatively that one has to wonder if such an iconic piece of music would have worked better if Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk had somehow been around before Stravinsky ever put pen to paper.
Divided into two parts, “The Re(W)rite Of Spring” has “The Sacrifice” and “Adoration of the Earth,” the former swinging more than the latter, while the latter proving more revelatory than the former. For now, though, let’s start at the beginning. “Dances of the Young Girls,” aided by Steve Lesche’s electric guitar and his seamless soloing, features some excellent horns and creates a type of vision for paganism in Russia that the original incarnation could have never revived. At nearly six minutes, it gives the performers space to be as versatile and resourceful as they so clearly can be.
“Spring Rounds” then slows it down with elegance, taking cues from Stravinsky’s original composition and the beauty that surrounds it. “Dance of the Earth,” meanwhile, wraps “The Sacrifice” perfectly, encompassing the prettiness of “Rounds” while bringing the visceral nature of “Dances” to life. It’s also the quintessential way to convey precisely how complex the original work was when first realized. Constantly morphing from soft to loud on a dime, the intricacies of the composition are highlighted here more than they are elsewhere.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for bravado. Running more than a half-hour long, “The Sacrifice,” which covers the rest of the performance, sets conventional wisdom ablaze with a vigorous fire as colorful as it is hot. “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls” brings the noodling of Lesche back into play while Timothy Young’s potent piano is smooth enough to make this track stand on its own. Accents give way to sparks and crescendos turn wild with how impossible it becomes to dampen the inferno of this performance.
Nothing is better, however, than the final number of the night, “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).” Invoking a bit of James Brown soul, this is where the Mobtown faithful get to kick off their shoes and let loose with something not offered elsewhere throughout the evening: a straight, solid groove. The players don’t shy from the opportunity, either, as Todd Harrison’s drums never sound more inspired and the playful horns offer runs that move concurrent with one another, essentially putting a proper cap on such a memorable experiment and sending the crowd back home to 2012.
Parting is always such sweet sorrow, though, and listening to “The Re-(W)rite of Spring” come to an end is both breathtaking (because of how wild the whole interpretation is) and bitter (because it took 100 years for someone to take Stravinsky’s moment of perfection and expand it in such a creative way). But despite the absurdly large undertaking that something like this would demand, Darryl Brenzel manages to accomplish a kind of perfection of his own with this performance.
“Perhaps this won’t be remembered as being as earth shattering as the original,” he writes in the CD book, “but I’m pretty darned pleased with it and confident that you will be, too.”
It’s only January, but “pretty darned pleased” has to be a candidate for understatement of the year.
**** 4 STARS OUT OF 4 ****