Thursday, 5 December 2019

National Ballet 2019-2020 # 3: Modern Classics

The third show of the National Ballet's November season consisted of three more-or-less modern works -- "more-or-less" because one of them has a distinctly classical flavour within the more contemporary approach of abstract dance, unsupported by a story line, while another made use of a style of movement which was modern but firmly rooted in classicism.  All three were created since the end of World War 2.

This programme in fact underlined the increasingly obvious truth that the lines between "modern" and "classical" dance are being blurred by many of the current generation of choreographers.  As well, the idea that modern dance occurred after a particular era or date is also itself becoming dated as the so-called "modern" era's beginning recedes farther into the past.

Also significant is that this programme is very much a company performance.  There are certain featured solos in the various works, but in the end it's the performance of the entire cast that counts.  More on that point later.

Alexei Ratmansky's Piano Concerto No. 1 opened the show, giving us in a capsule form much of the essence of this choreographer's art.  Using Shostakovich's sardonic, ironic music as a base, Ratmansky's work embraces a style of movement distinctly modern, but steeped in classicism.  The dance is abstract, but the subtextual reference to the Soviet era when the music was composed is unmistakable -- even more so in the choreography than with the giant red Soviet symbols suspended above the stage.

Insofar as this ballet may be said to have a story, it shows us the mood and emotions of life as a creative artist (i.e., the composer) under the oppression of the Stalinist regime.  This emotional subtext demands sequences of the dancers moving with drooping shoulders and heads dropped forward, a complete antithesis to the classical line.

Ratmansky's often-complex patterns of fast-moving dancers were as neatly executed by the company as the sharply-etched playing of the concerto by Zhenya Vitort on piano and Richard Sandals on trumpet.

An interesting innovation was the short instrumental interlude between the first two ballets.  The orchestra performed the adagio movement from Janacek's Idyll for strings.  This avoided the necessity for a second intermission which would stretch the length of the performance.

Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort followed, opening with a fascinating tableau of dancers flourishing fencing foils -- something normally seen only in Romeo and Juliet.  Those foils became an ongoing feature of this short ballet for 12 dancers, an obvious if subtle reference to a penis, given the title which is an old euphemism for an orgasm.  While some sections of this work displayed Kylian's trademark kinetic energy, others were more moderately paced.  This work was set to slow movements from two of Mozart's piano concertos, KV488 and KV467, played here by Andrei Streliaev.  Although Kylian was plainly working within the framework of the score, I was left with a feeling that some parts of the work were more at home with this music than others.  A fascinating encounter, though, especially considering that Kylian's work has been rare in recent years at the National.

After the intermission, Harald Lander's Etudes took the stage.  This ballet is the purest possible examination of classical technique you can imagine, especially considering that it begins with dancers at the barre, doing the exercises which are part of the discipline of daily class.  After the first few etudes, the barres disappear and the stage widens to allow for larger movement patterns which involve more dancers.  But the structure of the daily class remains to guide the work.

The real fascination of Lander's work lies in the fact that it is rooted in the distinctive style of August Bournonville, a style relatively unfamiliar to audiences outside his homeland of Denmark.  As the dancers get farther into the piece, the airy grand jete makes its first appearance, as does the rapid and intricate foot work so characteristic of the Bournonville tradition.

And this is precisely where Etudes also becomes the ultimate showpiece for the company.  Lander's work departs significantly from the classical tradition by showing us whole groups of dancers performing complex sequences, lifts, and leaps that are normally reserved on stage for the lead roles.

An intriguing contrast comes from a group of variations danced by several women wearing the flowing, gauzy tutus of the Sylph in Bournonville's best-known ballet, La Sylphide.  This choice of costume demands a softer-edged style of dance to match it.

Towards the end of the ballet, the sheer energy and elan demanded by the large group sequences clearly displays the depth and strength of the National Ballet.   The total cast of Etudes requires 42 dancers in all, and if they're never all on stage at once, there are several sequences where the number of hurtling bodies seems even greater.  This is one of a select group of ballets in which the National's ebullient dancing leaves me feeling exhausted and breathless.

Overall, then, an unusual but fascinating contrast of different dance works which kept the audience involved and intrigued throughout the performance.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2019-2020 # 1: Powerful Brahms and Two Romantic Rarities

Having missed the season opener during my European culture-fest, I had to wait until the end of November to hear my first concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra's season. When the time came, the concert was well worth the wait.

The centrepiece of the concert was a stunning performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77.  Violinist Blake Pouliot and conductor Andrei Feher between them certainly made this long-time Brahms fan sit up and listen to the music with new and attentive ears.

Gone was any suggestion of the patrician coolness and poise which has so often been thought appropriate for this composer's work by other interpreters.  Pouliot tore into his opening bars with fierce energy, and kept on very much as he began.  His performance was marked by its edge and attack throughout the first and last movements.  Not to say that his playing lacked refinement by any means -- that quality was also fully present in the quieter, more meditative moments, and particularly in his contrasting dreamy treatment of the violin's first entrance in the beautiful slow movement.   But overall, this was a revelation of the more impassioned side of Brahms, a side that too many interpreters have ignored.  

Feher matched Pouliot's near-aggressive approach with orchestral playing similarly marked by clean attack and sharp staccato.  One noteworthy feature of the joint approach of these two artists was a reduction in the amount of rubato.  Other performances in my experience have pushed and pulled the music all over the map with unnecessary pauses and hastenings of tempo.  Pouliot and Feher instead presented a reading in which the through line of the music remained clear and present at all times, without excessive distortions.  Combined with the immense energy generated, this led to a Brahms concerto performance of power and passion.

The beauty of the situation is that the Brahms concerto is such a masterpiece that it can not only endure, but thrive on varying interpretations such as this.  

The Brahms was framed in this programme by two rarities.  The concert opened with the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale by Robert Schumann.  I've written about it in more detail in my companion blog on rare music, Off the Beaten Staff.  Here's the link:  Schumann's Not-Quite-A-Symphony

The piece is essentially a symphony in 3 movements, but it's much more lightly orchestrated than Schumann's four numbered symphonies -- and much more rarely played.  Feher and the orchestra truly captured the essential lightness and joy of the score, treating it to a performance that bounced along with Mendelssohnian grace in the livelier moments and sang with the morning stars in the more lyrical pages.  Textures remained absolutely clear even in the more robust fugal textures of the finale, and the concluding apotheosis of the theme as a grand chorale resounded magnificently through the hall.  An absolute delight.

The concert concluded with a major work from a composer totally unknown to me, Friedrich Gernsheim.  I was so taken with the music that I immediately sat down to write a blog post about this one as well.  You can read it here:  Gernsheim Symphony # 2

In this work, the orchestra produced beautiful tone and blend in the complex textures of the first movement.  The winds in particular shone in the multiple passages of the first movement that separated them off and highlighted them.  The second movement Tarentella rolled along with unstoppable momentum combined with crisp articulation in the rapid passagework.  Feher and the orchestra avoided cloying sweetness in the slow movement, and managed the somewhat abrupt transition into the finale very neatly.  The brief stretto leading to the final climax and closing cadence was also done very neatly, with no rough edges during the acceleration.  A very rewarding performance of a work that few, if any, in the audience had ever heard before.

I'm sure many people went home talking about Blake Pouliot's powerhouse performance in the Brahms concerto, and rightly so, but for me it was the chance to hear two beautiful rarities of the Romantic era that really made this concert a worthwhile experience.  And the performance was delightful, from first to last.


Saturday, 23 November 2019

Toronto Symphony 2019-2020 # 2: American Night at the TSO

This week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has mounted a fascinating programme of works by five different American composers.  The concerts are led by guest conductor Leonard Slatkin, one of the leading American conductors over the last few decades.  Although Slatkin has appeared as guest conductor with the TSO on a number of occasions, this concert marks the first time I've managed to get to one of his performances.

The concert opened with a Canadian premiere: Cindy McTee's Double Play for Orchestra.  Maestro Slatkin raised appreciative chuckles when he disclosed in his pre-concert speech that Cindy McTee is his wife, that he and his son are also composers, and that he tries to programme one work by each of them in turn on a weekly basis to keep the revenue stream flowing!

One of the more entertaining aspects of contemporary classical music is the fun of trying to imagine from the title what a particular piece might sound like or how it might be put together.  McTee's title certainly intrigued me with the number of possibilities it raised in my mind.  In the event it turned out to be a two-movement work lasting some 17 minutes, with the two movements linked together. 

Normally, my great beef with contemporary music is the lack of any kind of rhythmic sense, any feeling of momentum or progression.  In that case, you'd think that I would enjoy the highly upbeat second movement more than the slower, almost static first.  But you'd be wrong.  McTee's first movement, entitled The Unquestioned Answer, presents a modern riff on Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question.  Using the same searching melodic "question" which Ives posed on trumpet, McTee puts it through a kaleidoscopic array of variations on different instruments, while string chords appear, shift, and vanish like clouds and occasional threatening swells of thunderous brass tone swamp the scene.  It's nothing if not gripping.

The second movement, Tempus Fugit ("Time Flies") builds up what seems an unstoppable momentum of jazzy cross-rhythms across the orchestra, with much use of percussion to punctuate the rhythmic drive.  It's very engrossing for a few minutes, but outstays its welcome as the sameness begins to wear after a while.  All the frequent shifts in rhythmic pattern were played with crisp precision.

Next, pianist Jon Kimura Parker joined the orchestra and Maestro Slatkin for the Piano Concerto, Op. 38 by Samuel Barber.  Barber is most famed for his Adagio for Strings, adapted from his early String Quartet.  This concerto came later in his life, being first performed in 1962, and received its TSO premiere a year later -- both performances with pianist John Browning.  This is the first time I've ever heard the work.

The concerto's bombastic first movement did nothing to change my impression that Barber had, by this point in his life, written himself out (he didn't think so).  It's rather telling that, for a composer who became famous for his melodic gifts, he didn't manage to find a single clear melodic statement anywhere in the movement.  There also didn't seem to be any clear connection between the soloist's material and the orchestral sections.  The two remaining shorter movements were much more rewarding.

Jon Kimura Parker dispatched the fiendish arpeggios and glissandos of the solo part with great energy and flair in the first movement, and then mined a vein of poetry in the slow second movement with gentler playing and beautiful phrasing.  The orchestra under Slatkin partnered him to lovely effect in that slow movement and then had themselves a fine old time with the high-energy 5/4 moto perpetuo of the finale.

After the intermission, we heard three shorter works in contrasting styles.  Bernstein's Overture to Candide featured on perhaps the very first Toronto Symphony concert I ever attended, as a Grade 8 student, and I remember how we studied the themes and listened to a recording in music class before the concert.  It remains a brilliant, extrovert showpiece with several obstinately memorable ear worms among its rich budget of melodies.  Slatkin's ebullient performance would have met with the approval of the young Bernstein when he wrote the piece (Lenny was notorious for getting slower in his tempi as he got older). 

The next work, definitely more serious, was Corigliano's Elegy for Orchestra. This deeply-felt piece written in 1965 was dedicated to Samuel Barber, and well it might be for the example of Barber's famous Adagio is close at hand here, at least by inference.  Corigliano's harmonic vocabulary is a good deal spicier than the austere sounds of the young Barber, but the emotional atmosphere remains common to both works.  Maestro Slatkin led the orchestra in a thoughtful, concentrated reading of this miniature gem of orchestration, with the flutes in particular delighting with their pure, cool tone in the opening measures and throughout.

The final piece on the programme lent its title to the entire concert: Gershwin's An American in Paris.  This symphonic poem, written in 1926-28, was described by Gershwin himself as a "rhapsodic ballet," and that description pointed the way to its eventual use in the classic 1951 film.  But he also said on another occasion:
"It's a humorous piece, nothing solemn about it. It's not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds."
While the TSO and Slatkin were unquestionably jolly on this occasion, I'm not so sure about the "light" part of it.  Slatkin let the brass section run a little too forcefully in some passages, so much so that the overall balance suffered.  Also, a couple of the fast sections were too hectic for my liking, as speed took precedence over musicality.  But Slatkin undeniably had the measure of the score, and handled all the surprising stops and tempo changes without leaving any loose ends.  In sum, a performance that was much more than merely competent but somewhat less than ideal.

Overall, this was an uncommonly rewarding concert for a programme containing so many works that have rarely if ever been heard before by so many of the audience.  Maestro Slatkin certainly achieved his stated intention of bringing to life a diverse and involving selection of the riches of twentieth-century American music.  The concert repeats tonight, Nov. 23, at 8:00 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

National Ballet 2019-2020 # 2: An Evening With Orpheus

For anyone immersed in the world of the performing arts, the ancient myth of Orpheus must surely be one of the most evocative of all mythological tales.  It speaks to the power of art, the power of love, the refusal to accept the inevitability of a "given," and the challenge of living within restrictive rules -- all themes that resonate with artists and artistic re-creators alike.

Since the art in question is music, it's no surprise that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was the first story to be dramatized in an opera, nor that it has remained a favourite subject of composers ever since, from the early Euridice of Jacopo Peri and L'Orfeo of Monteverdi, forward by way of Gluck and many other operas and ballets, to the romantic tone poem Orpheus by Franz Liszt -- to name only a few examples.

The National Ballet's second programme of its fall season presents a pair of works linked to the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Both are new to the repertoire, with the major work being a new commission for the National, set to a commissioned score.

The first work, George Balanchine's Chaconne, is linked by the choreographer's choice of music from Christoph Willibald Gluck, opening with what may very well be that composer's single most famous piece -- the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orpheus and Eurydice.  That's really as far as the tie-in goes, because Balanchine here produced one of his most successful abstract ballets -- a study in pure, symmetrical, ordered movement that gives full expression to his famous philosophy: "See the music; hear the dance." Although Chaconne contains several classic pas for 2, 3, or 5 dancers, this really is a company piece and one that definitely forces the company to prove its classical skills.  Balanchine is the ultimate example of the choreographer whose steps look easy -- and always seem easiest when the footwork is at its most fiendishly difficult.

Aided by the fluent playing of the reduced, Gluck-sized orchestra in the pit, the company gave this bright and lively Balanchine classic a glowing performance, full of life and light.  This goes to the top of my list of Balanchine pieces I'd love to see again, right alongside the equally brilliant Symphony in C, set to Georges Bizet's youthful outpouring of joy.

It's a definite privilege to sit down and witness the first-ever performance, anywhere, of a major new work like Orpheus Alive.  Normally, ballets are tagged with the name of the choreographer who creates them, but in this case such a procedure is misleading.  This new work is a collaborative team effort, involving choreographer Robert Binet, composer Missy Mazzoli, writer and dramaturge Rosamund Small, and set & costume designer, Hyemi Shin.

The resulting creation is a fantastic cross-fertilization of dance and theatre, making effective but sparing use of digital projections to enhance the drama taking place on the stage.  For the performers, too, it's a definite cross-over piece, requiring dance, acting, speaking, and singing.

When it comes to assessing the world premiere performance of Orpheus Alive, mere adjectives seem rather weak at the knees.  If there was ever a work where the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts, this is the one.  Orpheus Alive is a theatrical experience of stunning power and searching insight, due in large measure to the intense, forceful performance of the title role of Orpheus by Jenna Savella.

Wait a minute, I hear some people thinking -- isn't Orpheus supposed to be a man?  In the myth, yes -- but here the creators have chosen to reverse the genders of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In the final result as staged, it matters not at all.  What we see has so little relation to the outward dress of the classical myth that the names of the characters really don't matter.  This story is set in the present day, and it's almost as if two sets of mythology-mad parents chose to pin these ancient Greek names onto their offspring.

The story also becomes determinedly local by the introduction of a stage set depicting the Osgoode subway station on the Toronto subway network.  It's this subway station that is the scene of the first meeting between Orpheus and Eurydice, and it's also the scene of Eurydice's death.

Aside from these external details of character and place names, the story remains as universal as ever -- and it's the universality of the tale that justifies the whole show.  The title, Orpheus Alive, gives us the key link by underlining the reality that the story line of Orpheus is played out again and again, ever new, all around us, as we walk through the wilderness of this world.  How often have we heard a person who has suffered a bereavement wishing or even pleading for just one more chance to see, hear, hold their loved one yet again?  

In the key central character of Orpheus, Jenna Savella brought heart-tugging intensity to her plea for the return of Eurydice.  Her spoken address to the gods (the audience) ranged across a broad emotional compass.  But this is a ballet, and it was when she turned to dance (as her equivalent of the mythological song of Orpheus) that she truly unlocked the power of her character's emotions.  This lengthy and demanding solo is the true centre of gravity of the entire work, and Savella delivered Binet's complex and wide-ranging choreography with equal measures of finesse and force.  

In the climactic duet with Eurydice, as she tried to lead him back to the world of life, she loaded the choreography with so much desperate energy that I was gripping the arms of my seat.  This role compels this one dancer to carry the entire show forward for most of its 75-minute length, and the storm of cheering which greeted Savella at the curtain calls was the measure of her achievement.

Spencer Hack brought a similar broad range of emotions to the role of Eurydice, no mean achievement when he is given relatively little time to establish and embroider the character.  His transition from the subway station to the waters of the River Styx was imbued with intention, making it clear without heavy underlining that this Eurydice dies of his own will.  

Then, in the final duet, Hack demonstrated great agility and fluidity in his repeated -- and finally successful -- attempts to remove Savella's blindfold.

This, by the way, underlines the psychological hammer-punch that makes the ending of this piece so devastating and thought-provoking.  It's the revelation that the dead want to remain dead.  Having accomplished the transition to whatever lies beyond, they have no desire to return to the world we inhabit.

We see Orpheus leading Eurydice back to the upper world only after we have watched several other couples try, and fail, to meet this test.  In these cases, the dead persons try to provoke, entice, or compel the living ones to look back at them while still in the underworld -- and in the myth, that is the fatal error which causes Orpheus to lose Eurydice forever.

In this re-creation of the tale, the three-headed monster Cerberus, who guarded the gates of Hades, has been replaced.  Modern technology has caught up with hell, and in the most hellish of all modern environments: bureaucracy.  The new three-headed monster is a receptionist named "Sharon," seated at an endlessly revolving reception desk and talking from one head after another at -- not to -- the unfortunate living souls who hope to plead for the gods' mercy.  Rebekah Rimsay, Alejandra Perez Gomez, and Tiffany Mosher splendidly brought this modern nightmare to life, managing to not only look alike and act alike but even sound alike as they bellowed announcements, numbers, and admonitions while rotating around.

The rest of the ballet's cast consisted of Mourners, Furies, Apparitions, and Underworld Spirits, all depicted by assorted groups of company members.  All these group scenes played a key part in creating a portrait of the darkness and tedium of the underworld. 

Robert Binet's choreography for this work is remarkable.  His vocabulary flows spontaneously and easily between modern and classical styles, the women switching on and off the pointe sometimes in a matter of seconds.  Throughout, he's brought a special kind of sensitivity to the movements of the dancers, allowing the fullest expression of the emotions.  In that lengthy central solo for Orpheus, he's created a magnificent flow of choreography which avoids any feeling of sameness or monotony.

Missy Mazzoli's musical score, a combination of live orchestra and recorded soundtracks, is equally adept at creating the atmospheres in which this story can unfold.  Unlike the Gluck (although she does quote his music at one point), this is not music with pretty tunes that become earworms, but it is music of power and substance, and serves the needs of the story uncommonly well.

The text by Rosamund Small is a bit more of a mixed bag.  At times, it becomes a critical contributor to the show's atmosphere (Sharon's speeches, or the first speech of Orpheus to the gods).  But Small also resorts to Bertolt Brecht's epic technique of using humour to let the emotional air out of the show's tires, and really resorts to it too often.  It's almost as if she wants to tell us not to take any of this seriously at all.  This Brechtian deflation was an unfortunate choice, as it served only to undercut the powerful atmosphere being created by the music and especially by the dancers.

Then there's the sad reality that there will inevitably be people in the audience who simply don't find death, and especially death by suicide, to be a laughing matter.

Hyemi Shin's sets and costumes do a splendid job of evoking the strangeness and hostility of the underworld while still keeping all the action visible to the audience -- a challenge which some previous ballets staged in predominantly dark environments have failed to meet.

For its powerful combination of intense dance, evocative music, and a fascinating modern re-take on a classic myth, Orpheus Alive is one of the most entrancing and rewarding new works the National Ballet has placed before us in recent years.  Performances continue through November 21 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts.

Friday, 15 November 2019

National Ballet 2019-2020 # 1: The Ballerina's "Hamlet"

I must have seen Giselle staged by the National Ballet, in its current form, at least ten times now -- and maybe more -- in nearly four decades of ballet experience.  But this cornerstone classic still manages to capture my imagination, sneaking in under my guard and drawing me into its purely Romantic imaginative world.

Although surprisingly compact at just 2 hours running time including the intermission, Giselle still presents a significant test of two leading female artists.  The title role is known as "the ballerina's Hamlet," both for its huge emotional range and for the need to create a clear arc within the character which will shape that emotional range into a coherent and believable journey.

A different challenge awaits the dancer who portrays Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Act 2.  Myrtha demands a rock-solid characterization of cold, vengeful anger and that emotional state must infuse the dancer's entire face, body, and every bit of movement for 40 minutes.

Giselle requires equally detailed characterization from the male lead in the role of Albrecht, and was in fact one of the first ballets to create a significant role for the man, beyond simply dancing attendance on the woman.

There are also the very specific stylistic needs of the early Romantic style of dance, a style which still owes much to the grace and elegance of the ballet as it was known in the eighteenth century.  The extensive acrobatics of the later Russian school have little place here.  Rather, this style calls for light and airy movement, especially in stylish execution of the numerous leaps or grands jetés. 

Given these parameters, Giselle becomes a natural candidate for me to attend more than one performance, and see more than one cast at work.  In an era when every level of the company has incredible depth, the National Ballet's management has cast almost every performance of this run with different leads.

On Friday night, we saw Sonia Rodriguez as Giselle, Francesco Gabriele Frola as Albrecht, Skylar Campbell as Hilarion, and Jenna Savella as Myrtha.

On Saturday afternoon, we had Svetlana Lunkina as Giselle, Harrison James as Albrecht, Piotr Stanczyk as Hilarion, and Hannah Fischer as Myrtha.

Start with Hilarion, a role in which character mime becomes much more significant than actual dancing.  Skylar Campbell's performance highlighted the frustration he felt at Giselle's wilful behaviour, while Piotr Stanczyk emphasized the anger he directed at Albrecht.  Both were outstanding in their death scenes.

Francesco Gabriele Frola presented a patrician Albrecht, cool and elegant.  That characteristic infused his dancing in his solos, and in his duets with Giselle.  Harrison James projected a more vulnerable side of the character, and gave more weight to the dilemma between love and duty which traps Albrecht.  There was little to choose between them in the technical side of the role.

And there was little to choose between Jenna Savella and Hannah Fischer.  Both were superb, right from the all-important initial crossing of the stage on pointe -- the illusion of floating on air came clearly across even though the smoke generator was not used here as it had been in the last staging of the work 3 years ago.  Savella (in a role debut) was noteworthy for the hard edge she brought to her grand jeté, while Fischer excelled in the rigidity of her face and posture, creating that overall sense of cold rage so essential to the character.

Sonia Rodriguez beautifully portrayed the playful, girlish air of Giselle in the opening scenes, dancing with equal measures of grace and lightness.  That grace keynoted her performance in Act 2 as well, her solo in the pas de deux an outstanding moment.  Svetlana Lunkina gave a larger, more dramatic reading of the crucial mad scene, giving the entire ballet a more emphatic turning point.  Her work in Act 2 then highlighted love and regret in equal measures, her dancing throughout being suffused with those emotions.

The corps de ballet did fine work in the peasant dances of Act 1, with some splendid solo work in the first act pas de quatre.  In the second act, the women moved with impressive unanimity, with the difficult sequence of hopping across the stage while poised in an arabesque a real highlight.

This may all sound like a game of swings and roundabouts, and in a technical sense it is.  But ballet remains, first and foremost, a theatrical art.  And so, we have to look also for that indefinable extra something, the elusive quality that changes a good performance into a great one.  In the case of Giselle, as in most romantic tales, that special je ne sais quoi has to occur primarily between the two romantic leads.

And on Saturday, with Svetlana Lunkina and Harrison James, that extra dimension of magic was undeniably present.  On Friday, I admired the competence and beauty of the dancing.  On Saturday, I found myself caught up in the emotional world of Giselle, overwhelmed by the tragic power of the story.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Euro Concert Tour # 9: Classy Classics of Modern Dance

The formal concert tour/cruise is over now, but I added on a pendant in the form of a side trip to Stuttgart to watch two performances of another fascinating modern dance programme entitled "Classy Classics" by the Gauthier Dance company, resident dance company of the Theaterhaus in Stuttgart.  It's the first time I've ever visited this company in their home space.  It's a sizable hall created inside a factory building which appears to date from the 1950s.

My nephew, Robert Stephen, is a member of this company --
and one absolutely fantastic conductor!  (see below)

The programme was divided into two halves that couldn't have been more contrasted if you tried.

The first half consisted of a single work -- well, sort of -- entitled Decadance.  Before you go any farther, go back and read that title a little more carefully.

Choreographer Ohad Naharin, the dean of Israeli modern choreographers, has developed an intriguing and, for me, rather odd habit.  When one of his works is to be restaged, he also revises it by introducing one or more segments from other works of his.  In the end, the "work" becomes more of a salad of wildly contrasting sections which may, or may not, cast any illumination on each other.

Decadance is an extreme example of this habit, since it has been restaged in many modern dance companies since the original premiere in 2000.  As we saw it in this staging, the work lasted for 55 minutes.  By any standards, this is a challenging time span to try to bridge with any sort of coherence, whether narrative, thematic, or stylistic.

Naharin basically doesn't bother to try.  The "piece" is actually a compendium of multiple pieces performed back to back.  Sometimes the relationship between two adjacent pieces in the work points up some aspect of relation between them.  But just as often, there's no apparent connection at all.  

The closest equivalent to an overall theme for Decadance is to say that the focal point or "theme" of the work consists of all the contrasts of style, of pace, of energy, and of tone -- and that's a fairly bag-full-of-hot-air thematic statement.  Because Naharin's work incorporates some heavy-handed attempts at humour, perhaps the entire point of the thing could be to make fun of us for taking it seriously at all.

Maybe so.  But if that's the intention, then I've seen the point made much better by other choreographers in as little as 5 minutes.  

The ridiculously pompous narration, and the narrator-driven "seventh-inning stretch" for the audience, effectively bookend the work's most gripping and fascinating sections.  Once everyone has sat down again after the "stretch," my feeling of "we've seen all of this already, so show us something different" only gets stronger.

I realize that this is tough language from an amateur critic, but I did see the show twice so I'm twice as certain of my ground.   None of this commentary is to detract from the performance of the company in this carnival of eccentricity.  Individually, in pairs, in groups, they explored all the wildly divergent possibilities of energy and stillness, frenetic rushings and controlled slow-motion, meeting every test the choreographer could throw at them with complete assurance and finesse. 

And there's no question that Naharin's choreography at its peak is fascinating, full of rhythmic and structural possibilities that far too many modern choreographers fail to explore.  Here's one key example: a solitary woman struts in a posture which makes her hips look slightly dislocated, from back of the stage to front, then to the left, then to the back, and across the back to repeat the pattern.  At each corner she pauses and turns, like a soldier turning on a parade ground.  Meanwhile, other dancers enter the space in twos and threes, interacting, moving, some faster, some slower, in all kinds of directions -- entirely ignored by the woman strutting around the square.  This disjunction between the different kinds of movement so fascinated me that I didn't even notice the point when the strutting woman switched to a 45-degree angle across the stage until she was almost halfway across.

And who can forget the couple who move around the stage in a slow, stylized prancing motion, wearing enormously baggy red harem pants -- if that's the right name for them.  That limited prance was nothing if not unique.

In the end, I guess that the real problem with Decadance is the problem of the creator endlessly trying to reinvent the piece for each new company that takes it on by recycling his own earlier work, and in the process only watering down the whole slowly but inevitably -- and mercilessly. 

The second half of the programme was, for me, far more rewarding.  This consisted of four shorter works by four completely different choreographers, each with a distinctive and uniquely imaginative approach to the art of dance-making.  

Orchestra of Wolves, choreographed by Gauthier Dance artistic director Eric Gauthier, showed us exactly what the name said it would.  This comedic gem, danced to the famous opening movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, brought modern dance into sharp collision with the classic comedic takes of Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, and P.D.Q. Bach.  The six wolves of the "orchestra" make instrument-playing motions while pushing, gliding, and spinning across and about the stage on wheeled chairs -- something that many young children would love to get a chance to do.  The conductor, bunny tail popping ludicrously from under his tailcoat, begins the performance with complete assurance -- insouciantly filing fingernails with his baton during one sequence, for instance -- until the moment when he suddenly loses control of the orchestra. 

The ensuing chase scene can hardly be rivaled for playful energy or for sheer Keystone Kops humour. And why not?  The audience at the second performance I attended seemed uncertain whether laughter was allowed, but where is it written in stone that modern dance is not allowed to be fun?  The first audience I joined certainly took it as a cue to laugh merrily.

Following on this came a true classic of modern dance, the Herman Schmerman pas de deux by William Forsythe.  In this duo, Forsythe begins with a man dancing in modern style while a woman uses a style that blends modern motion with classical pointe work.  Before the piece ends, the two have moved through a multi-stage courtship ritual of a sort, and have largely adopted each other's movement styles.  With this dance, I could readily imagine all sorts of levels of meaning to read into the choreography, and by no means were all of them related to the art of romance.  The two dancers gave the work a reading of intensity and intention, where every moment and movement assumed real significance -- demanding equally intense attention from the audience. 

As a footnote, there's a rare synchronicity at work here.  I first saw Herman Schmerman in 1997, when it was staged as part of a cross-Canada farewell tour celebrating Karen Kain's retirement from dancing at the National Ballet of Canada (Kain herself did not dance in this work, but in another part of the programme).  On the day when I was going to see the first of two performances of this staging in Stuttgart, Kain announced her retirement from the Artistic Director's position at the National.  How weird is that?

The third work, Äffi, highlighted the signature and unconventional choreographic style of Marco Goecke.  This style calls for rapidly repeated movements of hands, feet, and sometimes whole arms and legs, while the body as often as not remains relatively still.  It goes beyond "shaking" -- in each Goecke work that I have seen, the operative word is "vibrating."  In this dramatic solo, three segments of varying length were paired with three songs performed by Johnny Cash.  Sometimes, Goecke's signature style can seem pointless or even contrived.  In the first song, though, paired with the undeniable pain and anguish in the singer's voice and words, the dancer's movement suddenly not only made sense but developed a powerful, indeed painful immediacy.  Sustaining that power across the succeeding songs merely highlighted the piercing anguish of the first number.  Although it seems at first rather distancing, the fact that the soloist mostly performed with his back to the audience also heightened the emotional intensity of the piece.  A memorable work indeed.

The programme ended with a work from a Spanish choreographer previously unfamiliar to me, Cayetano Soto.  Malasangre (literally, "Bad Blood"), is an ensemble work set to songs by "the Queen of Latin soul," La Lupe.  Again, power and energy are the highlights of the piece, with complex postures, movements and lifts the rule.  In faster passages, the dancing becomes a total whirlwind of high-speed motion -- yet always with clear intention.  This made for a climactic ending to a programme which demonstrated, in spades, the depth and ability of this company.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Euro Concert Tour # 8: The Grand Finale

For those on the tour who are following this series, I apologize for not including a review of the Zurich Ballet.  I was just too tired out to go racing out the door again on Sunday night.  I was asleep in bed before the show was even half over.

The grand finale of our European concert tour came on Monday night at the historic St. Peter's Church in central Zurich.  For this performance, the Gryphon Trio and James Campbell were joined by the Swiss Piano Trio and two additional musicians, Ruth Killius (viola) and Kenneth Henderson (horn).  The concert was billed as a "Three Festivals Concert," because it featured the anchoring musicians of three music festivals:  Festival Kammermusik Bodensee (the Swiss Piano Trio), Ottawa Chamberfest (the Gryphon Trio), and Festival of the Sound (James Campbell).

The choice of venue was significant.  I dearly love all three works on the programme, but I have never heard any of them played in such a resonant venue with such a lengthy echo time.  The church is a sizable (although not huge) building with a Romanesque barrel roof.  The interior walls and ceiling are faced with acres of paint over either plaster or stone.  The floor is all stone.  The musicians play on the rostrum where the elders would sit at service, also a stone floor.  The fronts of the balconies around three sides are faced with wood, but there are almost no other sound absorbers in the building at all.

This tricky acoustic had two effects on the balance of the music.  It tended to damp down the string tone, while amplifying the percussive edge of the piano by a quantum factor.  It couldn't possibly have been a greater contrast from the plush, low-resonance lounge of the M/S AmaSerena where previous concerts took place.  It was notable that the Gryphon Trio's pianist, Jamie Parker, was leaning into the piano part much as he would have done on the ship -- and there, it was necessary.  In this church, though, his piano playing sometimes swamped the strings.  By contrast, the Swiss Piano Trio's pianist, Martin Lucas Staub, who has often performed in this church, is plainly used to the environment and didn't work the piano nearly as forcefully.

In pointing this out, I need to qualify by saying that the world's greatest artists would be apt to run into similar problems, playing chamber music in such an unfamiliar and resonant environment.  My own amateur estimate is that the echo time is somewhere upwards of a second -- which means that, in loud percussive sections, it's quite possible to distinctly hear each separate note twice.

But it also means that rapid passagework in the strings is apt to become blurry, with runs sounding more like slides or portamenti.  Definitely a challenge to adapt on such limited rehearsal time.

So with that overall caveat, here are my reactions to the programme.

Mozart:  Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K.581 

Angela Golubeva, violin;  Ruth Killius, viola;  James Campbell, clarinet;  Jamie Parker, piano.

A delightful performance of this mature Mozart inspiration.  In the faster movements, especially the briskly-played minuet, the passagework for the upper strings was blurred by the resonance.  The tonal beauty of the slow passages in the second movement, in the first trio of the minuet, and above all in the heartfelt slow variation in the finale was a total joy to the ear.  The air of playfulness in the clarinet part in both the minuet and the theme of the finale brought a smile to my face, and I'm sure to many others.

Schumann:  Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 44

The Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano) with Angela Golubeva, violin; Ruth Killius, viola.

This quintet always strikes me as a bit of a paradox.  It's acclaimed, with good reason, as one of the great masterpieces of the Romantic chamber music repertoire, yet it contains sections which seem to me embarrassingly naive, notably the slow movement and the finale -- both of which depend to a dangerous extent on endless repetitions of a single short melodic fragment.

I know that not everyone will agree with me, and that's fine.  At dinner before the concert, I listened to another gentleman at our table loudly acclaiming the Schumann Quintet as the greatest piece of chamber music ever composed.  I held my peace.  If I were forced to make such a selection, I would personally opt for either Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 131 or Brahms' Piano Quintet, Op. 34.  But, for me, the "greatest" is generally whichever piece I am listening to at the moment.

It was in some of the louder pages of the first and last movements that the balance problems between piano and strings became most acute.  But there were ample compensations.  I simply cannot forget the gorgeous angelic halo cast over the lyrical episodes in the funeral march and scherzo -- the finest string playing of the evening.  On the more dramatic side, the double fugue at the end, where the finale's theme combines with an augmented version of the opening movement, fairly stood my hair on end -- and here, the balance was impeccable.

Dohnányi:  Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 37.

The Swiss Piano Trio (Angela Golubeva, violin; Joël Marosi, cello; Martin Lucas Staub, piano) with Ruth Killius, viola; Kenneth Henderson, horn; James Campbell, clarinet.

This work was composed in 1935, almost a century after the Schumann Quintet, and it shows.  Even though Dohnányi composed in what was then considered a "conservative" idiom, his harmonic practice is definitely later than Wagner.  If nothing else, the truth of that statement is amply proven by the last two chords of this work -- I'm sure that ending would have made both Brahms and Wagner cringe.

In the first movement, allegro appassionato, the ensemble found much drama in the sometimes wayward writing.  Most striking were the several passages where the melodic line fell by a minor second, while the bass line ominously rose by a minor third to the tonic -- the same doom-laden progression which Schoenberg used, to devastating effect, in the tragic Lied der Waldtaube from his early choral/vocal masterpiece, Gurrelieder.

Drama continued to erupt, between more lyrical passages, throughout the second movement Intermezzo (Adagio) and the third movement, Allegro con sentiment (although I've never really gotten the point of that unusual direction).  But then, the music suddenly morphed into the completely different world of the finale, and the whole ensemble were plainly having the time of their lives with the upbeat, jazzy rhythms, and the endless syncopations -- mainly due to the main theme getting chopped short on almost every appearance.  When it isn't being chopped, it's being lengthened.  This strikes the hearer as music meant to disorient, and the players relished the fun of disorienting their audience again and again.

The final buildup to the coda was suitably raucous and energetic without sacrificing the musicality of the playing.  The never-failing joke of the false ending on the subdominant, followed immediately by an insouciant cadence to the tonic, was both neatly and dramatically executed.  I don't think I've ever heard more comically underlined the words that Jim Campbell spoke to us before the work was played: "The last two notes are definitely worth waiting for."  Oh, yes.

The final applause was succeeded by several short speeches of thanks to the gang of 138 who went along on this extraordinary musical adventure, a "festival on the water" in truth.  We all made so many friends on this trip, some in passing, and some definitely for the longer term, and all the music was somewhere from incredible on up. 

Please be aware that any criticisms I've had to level in these reviews have been in the nature of trying to find the right rating in the range of 90-99%.  It's been a fantastic experience from start to finish.