Thursday, October 31, 2013

Suite Sounds: I Hear What the Caged Bird Doesn't Sing

The Harrisburg Symphony's next concert is called "Suite Sounds" and Stuart Malina will conduct two Suites - one, Richard Strauss' throw-back tribute to the 18th Century with music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman) completed in 1917;the other, Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" (Suite No. 1) - in addition to the 5th of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. But I'll be posting more about these works in the near future.

The concert is Saturday, November 9th at 8pm and Sunday, November 10th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There's a pre-concert talk with Dr. Timothy Dixon of Messiah College an hour before each performance.

The program opens with a short work by American composer John Cage that is all about sounds. It's one of his most important works - 4'33'' (which is pronounced "Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds").

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John Cage at the Piano
Years ago, when I was a crass graduate student, I was having dinner with a guest composer at a fancy restaurant where they had on display one of those odd musicians who made something of a living by playing the piano and singing requests.

It was not that I didn't like her selections even if I didn't particularly care for the way she was performing them, but the volume was too loud and so I decided to make a request, since the waiter ignored me when I asked if they could turn the sound system down.

“Would you sing John Cage's 4'33'', please?”

Other musicians who were there that evening got the joke and laughed. Our songstress was somewhat confused and chose to ignore me as well.

The piece by John Cage, however, is not a joke.

Because it seems simplistic in its premise – a musician (or several musicians) sit there, playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds – most people describe it as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

But they're missing the point: what the musicians reveal by not playing is what other sounds might be going on around us (or inside us) that we would otherwise miss.

Silence, philosophically, does not exist in our concert halls (or in our daily lives). I am sitting at my desk thinking about what to write next and I hear the faint hum of my computer, the distant (but not distant enough) dull (but not dull enough) white-noise of passing cars and trucks on the highway a ¼ mile away, the mail truck which has just driven past my house (again? that's the second time in a half-hour) and, oddly enough, one of my cats sleeping on the chair beside me who is snoring. And just as I type that, a neighbor across the street has started using a leaf-blower on her front yard. My stomach just growled (time for lunch).

But is that music?

"This is not a pipe"
This illustration of a famous (or infamous) painting from 1929 by the Belgian painter RenĂ© Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe) or “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)” is a visual approach to the challenges behind Cage's idea.

Of course, the average person is going to look at it and say “but it is a pipe.”

No, technically, it is a representation of a pipe, not a pipe itself.

Well, that's treading it pretty fine, isn't it?

But that's the idea behind the “treachery” of the image Magritte is warning us about: knowing the difference between a pipe and an image of a pipe.

“Just try filling it with tobacco” was Magritte's response to the inevitable argument, the artistic equivalent of “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Which brings us back to Cage who, in the 1940s, after having studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles (I know, doesn't that just blow your mind?), was stretching definitions much the way the surrealists of Europe had been doing already for decades, stretching the definition of what could be considered art.

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What is music?

Normally, a definition of music would include statements like these:

(1) – sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments
(2) – the art or skill of organizing sounds into something that contains melody, harmony and rhythm
(3) – an agreeable sound

Most music that we think of will naturally fall into one of these definitions. But, like Magritte's pipe, adhering to these definitions limits us to the possibilities of other... well, possibilities.

It also leads us into the temptation of viewing anything we don't like as “not music.” And yet what was music to one generation might not have been music (by this argument) to a previous generation. We forget that a lot of people thought Bach's music terrible in his day and that Beethoven, in his 7th Symphony, was considered “ripe for the madhouse.”

Times change, tastes change: all you have to do is look in your parents' yearbooks. Or if you're old enough, your own...

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John Cage and Cat
As for John Cage's still controversial work, what brought this about? What made him think of it?

There had been other pieces in which “silence” had a rather significant role long before Cage wrote his 4'33'' in 1951.

One of Erwin Schulhoff's “Five Picturesques” for piano, the one called In futurum, was notated entirely in rests – while the pianist sat there and played nothing, the pianist also has to count like crazy. That was in 1919.

In 1897, Alphonse Allais, a friend of Erik Satie, himself known for his culture-tweaking sense of humor, composed a funeral march for a deaf man that consisted of 23 blank measures. (Cage admitted at the time he was not aware of this piece, despite his great fondness for Satie.)

Perhaps Cage's first ideas were more humorous: in two of his songs, he directs the pianist to play the instrument with the keyboard cover closed. He told an audience in the late-40s he wanted to compose a piece that would be 3½ to 4½ minutes long (the standard length for a piece of “canned” music) and then he'd sell it to Muzak, the purveyors of elevator music. He'd call it something like “Silent Prayer.”

But then, in 1951, Cage entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Have you ever been in one of these? Technically, they are more than sound-proofed which merely keeps (or at least is supposed to keep) outside sounds outside. But this room is constructed so the floor, walls and ceiling absorb any sound that could echo around inside it, sounds you might create while sitting there.

Presumably, there are no sounds to be heard in such a room.

But Cage heard two distinct sounds, one high and one low.

The engineer explained to him that the high sound was his nervous system in operation and the low sound was his blood circulating through his body. He could hear them internally and because all other sounds externally were masked, it increased his awareness of sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Even in a place where there should be no sound, Cage heard sounds.

In his 1961 book, “Silence,” Cage writes, "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

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What will you hear when you listen to the entire Harrisburg Symphony play John Cage's 4'33'' in the fine acoustics of the Forum?

Oh, that's right: because it was premiered by pianist David Tudor in 1952, it's usually considered a piano piece, but Cage said it was for “any instrument or combination of instruments.” That way, it doesn't need to have credit given to an orchestrator.

It's also in three movements of different lengths, if it's going to be done correctly.

The question still remains, “is it music?” Or is it a philosophical work that challenges us to reconsider what is the nature of music?

I think I'll leave that as a rhetorical question.

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who's Afraid of the Rite of Spring?

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, opens the new season with their first concert  – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg (with a highly-recommended pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard free to ticket-holders an hour before each performance).

Tickets are available starting at $12 at the door and student tickets are 50% off before the concert.

The program opens with one ballet, premiered in 1912, and closes with another, premiered in 1913 - not a large time-frame - but music that may seem (at first hearing) a world apart. Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe is lush, gorgeous and evocative with an exciting finale – while Stravinsky's Rite of Spring may seem chaotic, harsh and provocative with an exciting finale.

In between are some of the most gorgeous songs ever composed – and yet, as lush and emotional as they are, they were composed in 1948 – the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme (who has sung Mahler's 2nd and Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with us in past seasons).

You can read more about Strauss' last songs in this earlier post, here.

While we might joke about “seeing” a concert, this is one to “see.” It will involve one of the largest orchestras you're likely to see shoe-horned onto the stage of the Forum: 105 players with a larger than usual contingent of woodwinds and some additional instruments rarely encountered live – like the gentle sounds of an alto (sometimes called a “bass”) flute, or the added depth of a bass trumpet – which will leave no room for dancers. These are “concert performances” of music originally heard in ballet theaters but considering most of the orchestra pits I've ever played in, it amazes me there'd be one large enough to hold 105 players, some wielding pretty large instruments!

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Igor Stravinsky
One hundred years ago, the world first heard Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and it surprises me that, a century later, the title itself is still enough to cause fear in the hearts of some concert-goers. It has that kind of reputation.

Yet, as often happens with unfamiliar music that may appear “formidable” to some – a single Mahler symphony on a program can likewise seem daunting – invariably the general audience response is extremely enthusiastic.

There is no doubt The Rite of Spring is a powerful work. I think an adjective that best describes it would be “visceral.” It may not be a “pretty” work but it is a dramatic and exciting work.

When the Harrisburg Symphony first performed this music in 1989, under the direction of music director Larry Newland – it was the boldest challenge the orchestra had yet taken on – I remember talking to the parents of a friend of mine (they were probably the age I am now) and asked if they “liked” it and they both said “no, I had no idea what was going on.” To them, it lacked the melodies they enjoy in Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, the beautiful harmonies they expect from most classical music whether it's Mozart or Wagner – and “really, wasn't the rhythm a bit much?” “Couldn't tap your foot to it?” “Well, no, could you...?”

It's a challenge to take in for the first time if you're listening to a recording and know nothing about the story of the ballet, what is “motivating” the music you're hearing.

Basically, unlike your typical love-story plot involving a princess or a flock of swans, this is about a community in pagan times celebrating the arrival of spring, choosing a virgin who will then be sacrificed to propitiate the gods who, if they look favorably on this ritual, will grant them a bountiful harvest in the fall.

What's “pretty” about that?

(And if someone wonders about programming spring music in an autumn concert, don't forget the weather this week is being described as “summer-like.”)

Before the curtain would go up (the opening several minutes of music is like an “overture” or “prelude”), we hear sounds of the awakening of the earth – a primeval song arising from the ground beneath our feet, perhaps, in that famous bassoon solo: so unearthly sounding even today, it must strike listeners as “what kind of instrument is that?”

Have you ever watched those stop-action time-elapsed films that show the germination of a seed and the resulting seedling that emerges from it? In a sense, that's how I hear the opening of this music: a bit of an image which perhaps quivers a bit in anticipation then gradually unfolds and proceeds to reveal itself, ever-changing, ever-similar but rarely the same.

To this are added other lines of sound, seemingly unrelated: an English horn fragment, deep clarinets supporting the texture, a clarinet cry, a rapid morse-code like call from an oboe, some quaking from two bass clarinets, a chorale of flutes, twittering piccolos, rhythmic pulses that seem to have no relationship to what's going on around them.

It's not unlike waking up on a spring morning and hearing the sounds of birds which are rarely known to sing in four-part harmony in ¾ time. As with the arrival of spring, it sounds like a whole new world.

And I'm not sure the audience in Paris, on May 29th, 1913, was quite ready for it, either.

In Russia – where Stravinsky grew up, born on a country estate where he would spend part of his childhood – spring arrives suddenly, unlike the way we're used to in our region of the world where it seems to creep endlessly out of the frozen wastes and snows of winter and may occasionally slip back and forth until eventually we're aware things are becoming green again.

In Russia, spring can also arrive with a kind of violence – the frost covering the ground breaks open (we might be more used to this when dealing with pot-holes in our roads) and the ice covering ponds and streams may crack and heave upwards with a resounding noise that can be heard for miles in the middle of the night, a phenomenon the locals call “the ice-break.”

This is what I hear as the first part of the ballet concludes with the “Adoration of the Earth” – the ending which isn't really an ending comes to a sudden stop. And the anticipation can be frightening. “What will the future yield after this?”

The first half of the ballet is all fun-and-games – teams of boys compete, girls dance, the Old Sage (the village's high priest) is ushered in to remind us there is a serious side to these festivities, and he calls upon the gods as he blesses the ground.

The second half of the ballet is now the serious side of the story, the reason for the festival – the propitiating of the gods with a human sacrifice.

It is night. Where frenzy was the focus in the first part, concentration of purpose is now the focus of the second.

The selection of the “Chosen One” may be a little atypical from your usual ancient culture – the village's virgins dance slowly in a mysterious circle. One girl stumbles – not once, not twice – and this is taken as a sign. She has been chosen.

With that, the villagers then begin to celebrate the coming sacrifice. We return to a sense of frenzy but where the first part was chaotic and seemingly disorganized, musically, now it is like communal frenzy.

The girl stands in the center, immobile, shaking with fear, as everyone whirls around her, pounding the earth and gesturing wildly.

If you imagine this music from the viewpoint of the sacrificial victim, it can be some of the most frightening music you can imagine.

Hardly likely to be full of romantic melodies and soaring harmonies. This is brutal music – and it matches the violence of the story.

This being a ballet – instead of being torn open by knives and her blood strewn all over the ground, her heart held aloft as an offering to the gods (as might have happened to a sacrificial victim in the Aztec civilization in the 1500s) – she dances herself to death to a series of violently repetitive rhythmic patterns that never seem to repeat themselves, building to a horrific climax.

Then, at the end, a sudden deafening silence, a wisp of smoke in the flutes and then a crashing chord. She is dead. The gods have their sacrifice. The world can now continue for another year.

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So, keeping that story in mind, listen to this concert performance of the ballet with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Part One, “A Kiss of the Earth” (in the composer's original Russian):

The Awakening of the Earth – at 3:30, “The Augurs of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls” – at 6:38, the steady repeated rhythms and the joyful folk-song-like fragments abruptly turn into the “Ritual of Abduction” – at 7:57, this now becomes the “Spring Rounds” which continues into the next clip.

The “Round Dances of Spring” continues, beginning almost caressingly then builds to a climax – at 2:55, the dance is disrupted by war games in “The Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes” – at 4:40, a slow procession builds up with the arrival of “The Oldest and Wisest One,” the high priest – interrupted by a mysterious chord (at 5:20), where the Old Sage bends down to kiss the earth – at 5:41, this then erupts into “The Dancing Out of the Earth” in which the community responds to the priest's blessing with a religious ecstasy building to the musical equivalent of the “ice-break” heralding the arrival of spring.
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Part Two, “The Exalted Sacrifice”:

It is night. The curtain goes up to reveal (at 4:32) the “Mystic Circle of Young Girls” as they walk endlessly in their circle – at 7:04, one of them stumbles; and again (at 7:25), she stumbles – then at 7:42 she is taken from the circle: she becomes The Chosen One and is honored by the villagers...

At 0:37, the mysterious “Ritual of the Ancestors” begins as the men of the village circle the Chosen One who at 4:14 begins her Sacrificial Dance, the famous “danse sacrale,” dancing herself to death by the final chord.

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So yes, following an evening of delightful romantic ballets with music by Carl Maria von Weber, for instance, the audience that night in Paris a century ago was not prepared for this.

And yes, let's get it out of the way – there was a riot.

I was joking about – having seen the celebrations around the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – if we would have “re-enactors” to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Rite of Spring's historic premiere.

The trouble is, there is so much mythology woven into this event, it's hard to tell which if fiction and which were simply the results of different factions in the audience. The stalls (the cheap seats) were filled with people who were there to be entertained. They probably knew nothing about what to expect and the sounds they heard were nothing like anything they'd heard before.

Let's face it, even if you've never heard the Rite of Spring before, you've heard more dissonant music simply by watching movies and television – but there it's in the background and – oh, guess what? – it supports the visual element you're primarily focused on, the foreground.

But a hundred years ago? Not a chance!

I can't imagine, sitting in that theater, not being confused at the beginning of the music – if the curtain didn't go up until 3½ minutes into this seemingly unorganized, chaotic disturbance that was being called music. And then, once the curtain did go up, to be seeing dancers dressed like that, dancing like that!?

Keep in mind, most people's image of ballet (then as now, probably) is young women in tutus wearing pointe-shoes where the extension of bare arms and legs was about as close to erotic art as many men in the audience could get and remain respectful (as great paintings often celebrated the nude body as art), this in an age where a woman in public showing a bit of ankle was considered scandalous.

The Original Dancing Virgins from The Rite of Spring, 1913
Then to see this – dancers draped head to foot in primitive costumes – their bodies completely hidden from view (I mean, aren't they supposed to be virgins? Shouldn't this be at least a little salacious?) And, in the foreground, an old woman hunched over, carrying a bundle of sticks, who suddenly leaps in the air, gesturing wildly as if struck by an electric spark who then begins hobbling around the stage?

From 1987 reconstruction
Who wouldn't have laughed?

And we're only a few minutes into a ballet that will be a little over a half-hour long.

The cat-calls and whistles – and those who wanted to listen or who were excited about something so amazingly new shouting back at them – were supposed to have been so loud, the dancers on the stage could not hear the orchestra in the pit in front and below them. Nijinksy, who had choreographed the ballet – many were disappointed this great star of the day was not dancing in it (that's what many thought) – stood in the wings, shouting out the count so his dancers could keep together.

And yes, Stravinsky recalls his growing mortification when all this began, shortly to get up from his seat, work his way out to the aisle (and telling someone who was booing “Go to hell!”) to witness the debacle from backstage.

It is said that the cat-calls began when the Grand Old Man of French Music, the conservative Camille Saint-Saens (born eight years after Beethoven died and who was now in his late-70s), got up and stomped up the aisle, muttering something about “that's no way to treat a bassoon.” The truth is, Saint-Saens wasn't even at the premiere of the ballet: he attended a later performance.

Some argue that Diaghilev himself – the man whose ballet company was presenting this performance – had arranged a clacque to start the riot (once begun, it would take on a life of its own) simply to create a success de scandale. And if that were the case, he succeeded – because ever since, the first thing anybody says about the music is “it started a riot.”

(By the way, Truman Bullard, professor emeritus from Dickinson College, did his doctoral dissertation on this very riot and is often quoted in discussions and other writings about this historic events. He will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each of the HSO's performances, so you can find out what research has proven to sift fact from myth.)

Well, actually, a lot of new music provoked often vociferous reactions from the first-night audiences. Schoenberg organized several concerts in Vienna or Berlin where booing during the performance led to fist-fights and the calling of police. Another seminal work of the 20th Century – Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire premiered in 1912 – was met with a similar riot.

In fact, if you read the accounts, Claude Debussy's Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” started a riot at its premiere in 1894, only nine years earlier than Stravinsky's premiere.

What?? That gentle, gorgeous diaphanous music???

Yes – but it was because of the choreography.

The story of the ballet itself was controversial: the erotic dreams of a faun (part animal, part human) who, by the end of the nine-minute scene, was pantomiming the act of... well, masturbating to his fantasies! (To this gentle, gorgeous diaphanous music???) And that's what caused the riot, not the music.

But the way people talk about, you'd think it was the music people were reacting to.

We forget that the piece of music itself is only part of the experience in both cases: music to accompany the dance, in this case, and to hear people natter on about the “Riot of Spring” is to ignore the fact that, the newness of the music aside, the choreography and the costumes as well as the disappointed expectations of the audience might have had something to do with it.

Yes, people were and continue to be startled by this music. It has a power to astound listeners to the point its reputation frightens them. And while it might not be to everybody's liking (especially those seeking light entertainment), there's no denying its power and the impact it had on 20th Century music.

Elliott Carter, a composer used to having people walk out of his concerts, attended the American premiere at Carnegie Hall in January, 1924, when he was 15 with a vague interest in music, listening to a piece of music given its world premiere only 10 years earlier.

Here, Carter reminisces about his experiences hearing new music as a student in New York City, recorded shortly before he turned 100 himself – he died a year ago a few weeks before his 104th birthday and was still composing, by the way:

He loved it for any number of reasons but he's often quoted as saying he wanted to write music like that, music that was powerful enough to drive people out of the hall not because he wanted to annoy them (which he and many other contemporary composers were accused of doing), but because the music was so visceral that it could create such a strong reaction that people would respond that way.

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But it wasn't just a one-night stand: there were five further performances of the ballet over the next two weeks – relatively peaceful but always a bit on the edge. Puccini, the composer of such lyrical masterpieces as Tosca and La Boheme, attended the second performance three days later and described the choreography as “ridiculous” and the music “cacophanous” – “the work of a madman. The public hissed, laughed – and applauded.”

When the Ballet Russes took the production to London (considering Paris was the center of “what's it,” London was a cultural backwater for new art), the Times' critic was “impressed how different elements of the work came together to form a coherent whole,” though not as enthusiastic about the music itself: complaining that the composer had sacrificed melody and harmony for rhythm he wrote, “If M. Stravinsky had wished to be really primitive, he would have been wise to... score his ballet for nothing but drums.” A ballet historian described the "slow, uncouth movements" of the dancers, which he thought were “in complete opposition to the traditions of classical ballet.”

A concert performance in Paris less than a year later – without the dancers – was met with considerable enthusiasm.

Here is a scene from a BBC dramatization of the Paris premiere that, like any kind of account must rely on fiction as much as fact to fill in the details. But it will give you an idea what “might” have happened – and it incorporates a recreation of the original choreography and costumes to give it at least some semblance of historical accuracy.

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And what about that original production?

Here is a performance by the Joffrey Ballet of the historic reconstruction of the original sets and costumes but most importantly (and the most difficult to recreate) Nijinsky's original choreography from a 1987 broadcast:

Many in my generation were first introduced to this music through Fantasia, one of the most magical films Walt Disney ever created, but though he chose to end with The Rite of Spring, instead of “pictures of pagan Russia” as Stravinsky imagined it, we see dinosaurs – from the famous battle between the T-Rex and the stegosaurus to the cataclysmic earthquakes that brought their age to an end.

Disney's Dinosaurs
Curiously, when Disney informed Stravinsky of his plans to incorporate his ballet into his film, assuming he would be honored to have his music made available to a wider mass audience, the composer was immediately opposed to the trivialization of his music. Disney (or agents from his studio) reportedly then informed him it didn't matter whether he approved or not because there was no copyright treaty with Russia and so therefore they could use it if they wanted to without his permission.

More curiously, then, when I went to search on-line for scenes from this movie, many of them came up as “withdrawn” because the Disney Studio was defending its use of copyright material (its images). Did they not see the irony, here?

I had to admit, as a kid of 7 or 8 when I first saw this movie, I was in love with dinosaurs and thought this was incredible! Now, looking back on it, I dislike what Disney did to the music – at the end, going back to reprise the opening bassoon solo? – and after seeing several productions of the ballet (which you can read about here, included in this post from 2009 on my other blog) – it seems quite tame (though I still tear up at the death of the Stegosaurus) but for several years, I found thinking of dinosaurs made it easier for me to come to terms with the challenges of this music. Now, I no longer need the visual crutch to appreciate the music alone.

Another way of "seeing" the piece, especially for those who cannot read musical notation much less follow a very complex score, is to follow one of those fascinating "animated graphical" scores: here's a complete performance of the ballet score:

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If this music is new to you, I think if you see the images of this production – as the music “looked” to its first audience – or this "animated score," it may help you listen to and appreciate the music as a more total experience. It has a specific structure, dramatically, though it's not like a Beethoven symphony: like most dramatic, theatrical music, the music exists on the skeleton of its drama but contains all the elements of music we expect in Western art, even abstract art (music that is purely music).

There is tension (a good deal of it, created in various ways) which is then released (in various ways) or which explodes (as the end of the first half) into non-resolution, creating further anticipation. Only at the end is this tension resolved – in one of the most astounding final chords ever written!

By now, The Rite of Spring has become standard repertoire, a war-horse, that can be performed in concert halls and ballet theaters around the world, whether it needs to be trotted out to celebrate its birthday anniversary or not.

But it still has the power to frighten people and I can understand that. But I could also say that, if a hundred years after Beethoven wrote his Eroica Symphony, a work that is often given credit for turning the 18th Century into the 19th, imagine if people still were afraid to go into a concert it was programmed on in 1903 - given everything that happened in between?

If you can turn on your TV and watch, say, NCIS with its car bombs and physical violence (ooh, look, he just got slugged with a tire-iron, cool!) or go to the movies for the latest action-thriller, chances are there's little in The Rite of Spring that could frighten you, musically or dramatically.

It is amazing how violent our entertainment has become – not to mention how our children amuse themselves with computer games. I'm not saying listening to The Rite of Spring is going to be the same experience but it can certainly relate – and if you accept that it doesn't have to be the musical equivalent of Last Man Standing (or at least Last Virgin Standing), it can really be a very amazing thing to experience.

Really – there's nothing to be frightened of. And if you don't like it after you've experienced it the first time, perhaps another attempt at familiarity will help make it easier the next time, if you accept it according to its own terms.

Dick Strawser