Two things happened in Berlin on March 16, 2020:
- our first child, Hugo, was born, and
- the city went into full lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
This may sound glib, but at first the lockdown felt like a bit of a reprieve for a new parent. Instead of production meetings and concerts, I could focus on adjusting to our life with Hugo within the cozy walls of our apartment. Early that spring, those hours spent with our newborn—of reading, watching Tiger King, and playing the harpsichord—were golden.
Reality set in by mid-May. I was Founding Dean of the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a music conservatory and concert hall. Performances and rehearsals had ceased, and festival planning was now eerily suspended. The institution remained shuttered with colleagues accessible only through Zoom, faces staring blankly at me through my laptop. Harrowing scenes poured in from New York. Friends fell ill, friends of friends died. We worried about our parents, our older relatives, our precious baby.
Looking for distractions (and missing concert halls and clubs), I began scouring online marketplaces and buying a plethora of vinyl records. During my time in Berlin, I had built a spectacular hi-fi system, complete with warm walnut, Danish speakers that made our floors vibrate with Mahler 5 at full blast (fortunately, we had no neighbors below us). I have always loved vinyl, and this passion grew with the heightened emotions I was experiencing as a new father facing a once-in-a-century pandemic. Instead of the jumbled cherry-picking of audio streaming, vinyl encourages us to sit—as if in a concert—and listen intently to the narrative of the recording. That spring and summer, I introduced Hugo to the ritual of concentrated listening, to the religion of vinyl.
Two albums stood out to us in my trove of recently acquired LPs: The Balance by Abdullah Ibrahim and The Rite of Spring performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Claudio Abbado. These two wildly disparate recordings became a kind of personal soundtrack of that dreamlike, precarious time. Three years later, they ear-wormed their way into the 2023 Spoleto Festival program. In the case of Ibrahim, I seized perhaps a selfish chance to finally see the great master at work; in the case of The Rite of Spring, the Festival will present a 110-year old apparition with the orchestra and an epochal balletic subversion conceived by Dada Masilo.
The Balance by Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim’s The Balance became a touchstone throughout 2020 and 2021. I found the music consistently calming, an aural clarity cutting through the hysterical haze of antiseptic spray. In Dreamtime, gentle, questioning chords on the piano lead to expository woodwind lines that recall Charles Ives’ solo trumpet in The Unanswered Question. Meanwhile in Jabula, a light romp ensues, with tonal, syncopated piano chords offset by melodic horn lines backed by propulsive percussion. Listening to it, Hugo would bounce along in his Babybjörn, squirming his tiny body to the improvised grooves.
Ibrahim is a paragon of hope and humanism. His work—his entire life—is a pitched struggle between light and dark, a testimony to music’s ability to transcend the most internecine political and social barriers. Born in Cape Town, he left South Africa following the Sharpeville Massacre, when the Apartheid government started to crack down on jazz musicians. His piece, Mannenberg, became an Anti-Apartheid anthem, recorded in a quick visit to his hometown amidst exile in Europe and the United States. Nelson Mandela referred to Ibrahim as “our Mozart,” and invited him to play at his inauguration.
Those flute flutters, the throttling upright bass lines, the surprise dissonance which changes the entire complexion of the piece; Ibrahim is a Mozart, and during the pandemic, The Balance was my salve.
The Rite of Spring with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado
And The Rite of Spring was my fury. Few works of composed music convey archaic savagery like Stravinsky’s ballet. It is complex, with thorny polyrhythms and a layer cake of strange, ancient-sounding melodies. The narrative is violent: it depicts an ancient pagan ritual in which a young maiden sacrifices herself in a dance of death amidst onlooking elders. To me, the piece captured an increasing sense of rage and pandemic folly as the lockdown wore on. Three minutes in, you hear thrashing chords in the orchestra’s strings, paroxysms of dissonance. In the narrative of the ballet, this moment is meant to augur spring. The chords tell us otherwise: spring brings death.
The Rite of Spring supposedly caused a riot on the streets of Paris at its premiere in May 1913. In May 2020, Hugo and I were a two-person riot head-banging along to the Sacrificial Dance blasting from our speakers. My wife, Sarah, looked on as I high-kicked with arms akimbo through the living room like a rabid Riverdancer out of some atavistic theater. Hugo, in approval, would pound his three-month-old fists on the floor to the timpani blasts reverberating throughout the apartment.
The phrase “staying power” does not do The Rite of Spring justice. Over a century after its premiere, the piece still shocks, it still rocks. It digs deep down into some primeval place, into our marrow, in the very cells of our being. It still makes us twitch. It still makes us move.
Three years on, Hugo has a baby sister, Banbha, and our family is comfortably ensconced in sunny Charleston, still rocking to The Rite of Spring and grooving to The Balance. As the 2023 Festival approaches, I look forward to these live performances with bated breath. They will not be private rituals, between a newly-minted father and his tiny son; they will be shared encounters with hundreds of other audience members, communing in the transcendent power of music and dance.
This Festival, don’t be surprised to see me head-banging along to The Rite of Spring, two steps away from improvising a mosh pit in the Gaillard. Just days later, I will experience Abdullah Ibrahim at the Cistern in a state of catatonic joy, a reverie of those terrifying, golden hours of Hugo’s first days.
By Mena Mark Hanna
General Director & CEO