In Memoriam Elliott Schwartz

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One of my most treasured possessions is a birthday greeting from Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, surrounded by family, friends and former students of Bowdoin College, where he taught for many years.

The greeting is six bars of piano music in 4/4 time, marked “Slow, stately.” Elliott played it at my party, and I have returned to it many times since. In these few bars are contained some of the qualities that made Elliott a great musician and an even greater man.

The piece exemplifies Elliott’s long-term interest in the alphabet and numerology as sources of motifs for his compositions. His lectures on hidden codes in music are legendary, and in the greeting he uses the letters of my name, my date of birth and the date of the birthday party to build both melody and harmony. The only letter for which there is no musical equivalent is “Y”. The player has to shout out this syllable at the appropriate time, leading to the title of the work: “The Answered Question.”

Following that theme, the work progresses from relative dissonance to a satisfying tonic-sounding conclusion, even though there is no key signature.

“The Answered Question” illustrates Elliott’s characteristic musical inventiveness, and his ability to combine disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

It also contains a bit of psychological acuity,  a great deal of generosity, and considerable humor. It tells a story without words.

I first met Elliott at the beginning of my tenure as classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald. I interviewed him about his “Bellagio Variations,” but the conversation continued for well over an hour, covering a wide range of topics, end ended with his giving me R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book, ”The Soundscape.” It was the beginning of a long friendship with Elliott and his beautiful wife, Deedee, who died in 2014.

Although Elliott was in considerable pain after an automobile accident that almost took the lives of both him and Deedee, I never saw him in anything but a good humor. When I wrote disparagingly about Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar, about whom Elliott was the acknowledge\d authority,  he merely remarked that there might be something in them after all and suggested a few recordings.

Perhaps there was a little synchronicity involved in the relationship. At one dinner party we had invited the late poet Henry Braun and his wife, Joan. She and Elliott were surprised at meeting (again). They had both attended the same high school in Brooklyn, at the same time, and had not seen each other for about 40 years.

On another occasion, two noted violinists, my wife Judy and I, and Elliott and Deedee, spent an hour after dessert playing a sextet on wine glasses.

I saw him at a concerts and festivals in recent years, but I recall most vividly a lecture he gave at Thornton Oaks, where he spent the last years of his life. It ended with one of the most spectacular recordings ever of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with a photograph of Vladimir Horowitz displaying a rare smile after the performance. I wondered “Where does he find such people?”

Where will the State of Maine,, the nation, and the world, find another Elliott Schwartz?

Christopher Hyde, Pownal, Maine. Dec. 8, 2016

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustave Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached a classbeat@netscape.net.

Sibelius Fifth Fails to Rise

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A work that almost becomes a horn concerto was a fitting tribute to principal hornist John Boden, who will be retiring at the end of 2016 from the Portland Symphony Orchestra, after a career spanning 35 years.

Sunday affernoon’s concert began with a fine performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche,” Op. 28, in which the hero is introduced, and sometimes portrayed by, a horn motif. Till is everyone’s lovable rascal, and his “merry pranks” contrast some of Strauss’ most elegant and noble melodies with slapstick orchestral carryings on.

When the law eventually caches up to Till and sentences him to the gallows, the scene-—perhaps a parody of Berlioz” “March to the Scaffold” in Symphony Fantastique—- is transformed from tragedy to comedy by a silly little tune on the flute, like the dropped handkerchief final bars in “Der Rosenkavalier,” indicating that all is well and his spirit lives on.

The Strauss was followed by Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, in a brilliantly realized rendition by Benjamin Beilman. I couldn’t detect a single missed note in the fiendishly rapid and difficult score, which includes some really unusual dissonant double stops. More importantly, the young violinist realized the emotional content in some of the most lyrical passages Prokofiev ever wrote. The final extended note that concludes the work was pure magic, earning Beilman one of the rarely well-deserved standing ovations bestowed by a full house at Merrill Auditorium.

Prokofiev’s genius shines through every bar, but his use of the harp’s metallic, bell-like sound, against the sostenuto of the violin, was something I had never heard before, once again illustrating the necessity of live performance.

After two well-played masterpieces,, the orchestra’s performance of the great Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, (Op. 82) was a disappointment.

It began well, with a first movement full of the composer’s northern pantheism and the pedal point of the forest. (Sibelius liked Niagara Falls for its really low notes.). In contrast the second movement was cheerful, in its playful handling of a five-note motif on plucked strings.

The final movement, although it had some high points, was a failure. It is one of the longest and most glorious crescendos in orchestral history, and its gradual, almost imperceptible increase in volume portrays the great awakening of Nature. Perhaps conductor Robert Moody wanted to try something different from the traditional reading, but under his direction the gradual ascent to Olympus became more of a sine wave of ups and downs, totally dissipating the effect of the climax. The overlong rests in the concluding bars were icing on a fallen cake, completely over the top.

It, too, received a standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Time Travel at the Early Music Festival

Portland Conservatory of Music
Early Music Festival
Woodford’s Church, Portland
Oct. 30. 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Conservatory of Music’s Early Music Festival (Oct. 28, 29 and 30), now in its fifth year, continues to attract talented performers and ever larger audiences. Its Sunday afternoon concert, featuring Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and music from the court of Henry VIII, exemplified both trends.

“To whose more clear than crystal voice the frost had joined a crystal spell.” I thought of Leonie Adams’ line during soprano Anna Schwartzberg’s singing of “I love, loved,“ by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). But everything attempted by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, under Robert Greenlee, was well sung, by both soloists and full chorus.

Amour seems to have been the principal pastime of both the monarch and his court, if the songs from that era are any indication. Like Shakespeare’s in-jokes, they are full of double entendres that now reveal themselves only to scholars but were probably common parlance at the time.

The first song, “Pastime with Good Company,” written and set to music by Henry himself, can be read two ways; an encomium to a good husband is interrupted by clucking chickens, and even the long and lively final work, “El Fuego,” about the Virgin providing water to put out the fires of sin, has its sly moments.

Greenlee has worked with the singers to clearly deliniate parts in the polyphonic works, and to clarify diction enough to make verses understandable. The dynamics were impeccable.

The instrumental accompaniments and interludes were also outstanding, with sufficient volume to balance the choir.

The Monteverdi “Combattimento” was equally well sung and played by members of the St. Mary Schola under Bruce Fithian, who directed a chamber orchestra of period instruments from the harpsichord.

The drama, which is a masque rather than an opera, was the first major work to use music to describe action, in this case the combat between a crusader, Tancredi, and a Muslim knight, Clorinda, who happens to be a woman. She loses the battle and is saved by baptism as she expires. The primary singing role is that of the narrator, or Testo, sung by Martin Lescault. Tancredi, Paul McGovern, and Clorinda, Molly Harmon, have relatively minor singing parts, but mime the scenes described by the narrator.

The action is carried forward by the instrumental music. It is hard to believe that sixteenth notes, depicting swords striking steel, were considered revolutionary at the time. That is the primary obstacle to overcome in hearing the masque: putting ourselves in the role of an audience hearing the piece for he first time. Unless the intended feelings can be conveyed, the exercise becomes more educational than emotional. The battle scenes seem tame to modern ears attuned to movie scores, but the tenderer moments, as when Tancredi discovers his true love under his opponent’s visor, still have magic, as does Tasso’s poetry.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

VentiCordi Explores the Unusual

VentiCordi
Studzinsky Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Oct. 29, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

While the musical avant garde set off in various directions, some rewarding and some not, many composers continued to write good, solid and interesting music in traditional forms, while also taking advantage of what Schoenberg called “the liberation of the dissonance.”

Last night’s concert by VentiCordi (wind and strings) at Bowdoin’s Studzinsky Hall, provided substantial proof of just how rewarding this style of music can be. All of the works were thoroughly enjoyable and some broke new ground with old tools, like St.-Saens. It is doubtful that anyone in the audience had heard these works before, but they were all readily accessible, beginning with a fine Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano by British composer Madeleine Dring,(1923-1977) who wrote it for her husband.

It explores (very) close harmony between the woodwind instruments, and their subtle differences in timbre. One sometimes felt that the oboe became less “reedy” in close collaboration with the flute. It was given an outstanding performance by Bridget Convey, piano, Sarah Brady, flute and Kathleen McNerney, oboe.

McNerney appeared again, with noted double bass player William Blossom, in “Three Songs for Oboe and Double Bass, after poems by Pablo Neruda,” by Andrea Clearfield (b. 1960). The combination of instruments, as unusual as it is, was ideal for exploring the interplay of male and female as portrayed in Neruda’s erotic poems: “Body of a Woman,” “The Light Wraps You,” and “Every Day You Play.”

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), who died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp, was once known for a relatively few works and the tragedy of a career cut short. Now that more of his compositions have been uncovered, he seems rather like Prokofiev, both daring and playful. As VentiCordi co-founder, violinist Dean Stein, said in opening remarks, Schulhoff wrote a piano piece consisting entirely of rests and indications, long before John Cage’s “4-33.”

His Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass, played by Stein, Brady and Convey, sounded a bit like Prokofiev, without the Russian influences, especially in the comically quick-step Rondino that ends the work, in which the flautist switches to a piccolo for the final squeak.

I had heard the “Schilflieder” (Songs of the Reeds) for Oboe, Viola and Piano of August Klughardt (1847-1902) once before and remarked that it sounded like Brahms after one too many steins at the Red Hedgehog. Convey muted the piano part a bit this time, for a better balance of the parts, and a more lyrical, less bombastic, feel. No matter how interpreted, it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of late Romanticism, full of Brahmsian harmonies and gentle melancholy.

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano (1958), that ended the program, was a virtuosic tour de force by Nino Rota, composer of the first two “Godfather” scores. Not very emotionally moving, without the images on the screen, but exciting throughout, concluding with a fantastically rapid Allegro vivace con spirito.

The program will be repeated Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2:00 pm. at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Midcoast Shines in Romantic Program

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

As a hopeless Romantic, I went to the Franco Center Saturday night expecting to hear live performances of three of my favorite works— the “Light Cavalry” Overture, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C-minor.

What I was unprepared for was the quality of the performances by the Midcoast Symphony under the direction of Rohan Smith. They would have done credit to any well-known professional orchestra; from an “amateur” ensemble they were little short of miraculous. I urge any music lover who can get there, to attend a repeat of the program at the Orion Center in Topsham today (Oct. 23) at 2:30.

It reminded me of Schopenhauer’s paradox, to the effect that we admire those who practice an art for money and denigrate those who do it for love, calling them “amateurs.”

The von Suppé, which I believe was sometimes played on “The Lone Ranger” in addition to the “William Tell” Overture, is the epitome of a canter cross-country with some light excuse. As the general said of fox hunting; “all the excitement of war and only a quarter of its danger.” It is pure delight, with just the hint of a melancholy center to contrast with the beginning and end.

The overture, of course, is a popular war horse of the repertoire, but difficult to do well at an exciting tempo. The Midcoast’s swash-buckling rendition was well-nigh perfect.

The Rachmaninoff, equally familiar, was equally well played, with Jonathan Bass at the piano tossing off coruscating clouds of notes, matched in brilliance by the orchestra. There was a little tug-of-war about tempo at the beginning, but that only added to a suspenseful performance as the composer, knowingly aided by Smith, teased the audience with hints at the final movement’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

After the Center’s traditional crepes and wine during intermission came the greatest test of any orchestra, a Brahms symphony. In this performance, Smith succeeded in conveying the composer’s debt to Beethoven (and Bach), without compromising the forward thrust of the score.

The symphony is full of pitfalls, from lush orchestration to demanding percussion parts to pizzicati by the full swing section, all of them negotiated without a hitch. What one really worries about, however, are the heavenly horn calls preceding the ode to joy of the final movement. Those of principal Carolyn Kanicki were enough to bring tears to your eyes. The other players in the all-female section are Beth Almquist, Cynthia Harkleroad and Sarah Rodgers.

Brahms may not outdo Beethoven in his own “Ode to Joy,” but he achieves the same triumphant effect without the last resort of composers—the human voice.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

BalletX Shows the Best of Both Worlds

BalletX
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

BalletX, which came to Merrill Auditorium Thursday under the auspices of Portland Ovations, presented one of the most unusual and satisfying dance programs in recent memory. (Disclaimer: the company originated in Philadelphia, where I was born.)

They had to overcome two prejudices of most balletomanes: combining classical ballet and modern dance, and the use (primarily) of popular rather than classical music. Both objections vanished in the face of the dancers’ enormous talent and energy, and the originality of the choreography.

The music was recorded, which robs the performance of some of the spontaneity made possible by a conductor, but the styles were so individual —from Klezmer to Bach— that it would have been impossible to produce their variety with one orchestra.

If I had to characterize BalletX in one word, it would be “erotic.” But the appeal goes much deeper than that. The poses, lifts and steps, no matter how intricate, elaborate, and athletic, stem from the natural motions of the human body. They are real life raised to a higher power, and the audience can almost feel them.

Some claim that piano playing ability improves when one’s muscles subconsciously imitate those of a pianist on stage. The same thing happens with BalletX. The audience walked more gracefully as they left the theater.

The choreographers, different for each of the four short ballets on the program, know their fine arts. There were instant snapshots of Matisse dancers, Delvaux’s mysterious women, the loneliness of Edward Hopper, and the hieratic poses of Will Barnet. They are also very conscious of the changing patterns of negative space. Multiple hand and arm gestures sometimes unfolded like the petals of a flower under time-lapse photography.

The first ballet, “Slump,” is described as “a wild, aggressive dance about courtship and the instinctual rituals of mating, set to klezmer, jazz and mambo music.” It was all of the above, and more, perfectly matched to the unique mood of klezmer.

My favorite ballet of the night was an elaborate semi-classical pas de deux, by Chloe Felecia and Richard Villaverde, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It reminded me of the line from Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—“Love, let us be true to one another…” giving each other strength in bad times.

“Gran Partita,” set to classical music by Berg, Mozart, Bach and Monteverdi, replaced “Delicate Balance,” which illustrates pattern in chaos through the use of contemporary music. It also emphasized the company’s skill at setting large unified patterns, like a living kaleidoscope.

The final work on the program, “The Last Glass,” explored the joys and tribulations of everyday street life, among them boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses boy. At least the star-crossed lovers were reunited during many enthusiastic curtain calls.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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