Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” (1.18.06)

Posted on July 28, 2008


“This is one of the few perfect pieces of music ever written,” says Cantata Singers conductor and musical director David Hoose. We’re speaking of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, which the Cantata Singers will perform this week. While proletariat indie-rockers might have hundreds of obscure ditties in their arsenal to counter this proclamation, let’s consider this for a second.

The piece followed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, infamous for its disjointed melodies and riot-inciting premiere. With Les Noces, Stravinsky took his Russian folksong source material and continued to pursue the idea of what Hoose calls a “black-and-white, glittering machine” of instrumentation. The end result is a wild, 23-minute dance of the Old World tangled up with the new order of steam and pistons.

The score pits a 44-member chorus against an imposing army of hammering instruments—six percussionists and four grand piano players. Looking at the massive pianos and huge percussion setup is like staring helplessly at fleet of Star Destroyers from a tiny escape pod. Les Noces quickly opens into an intricate and stunningly loud flesh-and-blood whirlwind that somehow blurs a traditional wedding dance with the buzz and clank of an assembly line.

“Without this piece, there would be no Philip Glass, no John Adams. None of them would have conceived of any of the music that they wrote,” Hoose says. Chorus member Brian Church adds, “This is the world’s first math rock.”

“The people of the ’20s in Paris were crazy about industry and modernization!” exclaims Hoose—fittingly, over his cell while barreling down the interstate. “Everything was Art Deco, and this piece is as Art Deco as you can get. You have all these pieces written together like a puzzle, so that one part can’t push or pull too much without upsetting the apple cart. Like everything else from that era, it looks terrible if it doesn’t look perfect.”

The Cantata Singers, a Boston institution since 1964, will be lending their insane talents to the formidable piece. With a mammoth list of honors, high-profile premieres and commissions under their belt, the group extends wide-eyed enthusiasm for all music weird, adventurous and beyond categorization.

“This piece is amazing not because it’s cool, which it is,” says Hoose, “but because it’s emotional and thoughtful. People sit there with their jaws dropped all the way through the last bells ringing out into infinity.”

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 1.18.06]