Anthony Parnther led the Music Academy Fellows Orchestra at the Granada on June 29, 2024 | Photo: Andre Yew

It’s hard to believe that 111 years have passed since Igor Stravinsky burst forth with his game-changing Modernist landmark, Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring). To whatever degree reports of a riot upon its Parisian premiere is true, this music truly rocks: it rocked musical conventions and left a lingering influence on modern orchestra music, and it rocks in the almost pre-rock ‘n’ rolling, primal, percussive thunder of “The Augurs of Spring” after the warily gentle opening, “The Adoration of the Earth.” 

Part of the score’s continuing power to shock and delight — as heard in a moving Music Academy of the West performance at The Granada Theatre on Saturday night — is both the relative rarity of its appearance on stages, and the lack of competition in the orchestral repertoire in that intervening century-and-change. It remains a milestone unto itself, a challenge to orchestras and many listeners.

A very full stage full of the young and gifted musicians of the Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) shivered, along with the Granada itself, as conductor Anthony Parnther bravely led the charges in what was possibly the 805’s finest (which is also to say, raucous in the right degree) Rite yet heard here. For the record, incidental local Rite sightings in recent years range from the Santa Barbara Symphony’s noble effort and a pared-down jazz-rocking version by the Bad Plus at the Ojai Music Festival. What the AFO gave us was a memorable real deal encounter.

Anthony Parnther led the Music Academy Fellows Orchestra in Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring)’ on June 29, 2024 | Photo: Andre Yew

A deft and delicate balance is critical to any successful Rite performance, with its intricate rhythmic convolutions and prominent percussion element, the abrupt shifts of murmuring lyricism and intense passages of fraught ferocity. Tender melodic themes — sometimes borrowed from Lithuanian folk music — struggle to seize a spotlight, frequently interrupted, roughed-up and rerouted over the restless course of the piece, especially in its second half. No happy ending is in store, although the “Sacrificial Dance” concludes with a sly little flute flurry before its finalizing chord.

The Parnther-guided AFO understood the score’s fragile yet commanding paradox again with a wisdom seemingly beyond its collective years (although that equation is higher than usual in this densely-populated ensemble).

Parnther’s AFO program was the strongest of the handful of orchestral concerts this season, taking on Rite of Spring as the centerpiece but also folding in living Los Angeles–based composer Joan Huang’s appealing Tujia Dance and the late, recently re-appreciated black composer Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor. Suitably, Huang is the widow of noted percussionist-composer William Kraft, who held the Corwin chair at UCSB for several years, and whose history included work with Stravinsky, and Huang’s piece shows the imprint of Stravinsky-ian influence, along with impulses drawn from her own Chinese lineage.

Price’s delectable 1938 symphony is a treat for the ears and a valuable rediscovery in terms of historical and ethnic reference. Price worked with a language redolent of Copland and Gershwin, but in her own special dialect, with a telling nod to slavery via the plantation-based practice of Juba blending in with popular culture, a marimba moment and an engaging thematic journey of a piece. Price’s piece was a journey itself, well situated in an evening all about brave journeys beyond standard classical norms. Touché.

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