Tag Archives: Portland Ovations

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.

It’s Magic: Portland Ovations Materializes The Illusionists

The Illusionists
Merrill Auditorium
April 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations’ blockbuster event, The Illusionists (April 15 and 16 at Merrill Auditorium), brought together some of today’s most popular magicians in a show that was… well, magical. Like most other people, I enjoy magic tricks, so I went without intending to write a review, simply to be amused and mystified.

The show did all that and more —The Trickster, Jeff Hobson, is also a great comedian, with an amazing ability to pull straight men out of the audience—but I was also impressed by how much of a role music played in the performance. The program even lists the company’s composer, Evan Jolly.

A lot of it, emanating from a control room that looked like the command center of a nuclear submarine, was way too loud, but the volume only added to the effects, the first of which was that primary skill of the magician, mis-direction.

The second was to create a rainbow of atmospheric and emotional effects, including extreme tension, martial arts, wistfulness, including a not-too-bad piano rendition of “Claire de Lune,” macabre humor, for Dan Sperry, the Anti-Conjurer, whose persona is a spaced-out zombie with a hipster attitude, circus music, and finally, a sense of wonder, at the final snowstorm created out of a paper napkin by The Inventor (Kevin James).

If there had been an elephant to disappear on stage, Jolly would have come up with an appropriate score.

It was all very effective, especially as Andrew Basso (The Escapologist) struggled, submerged for two-and-a-half minutes, to free himself from a water-filled tank, like Houdini.

One thing about the performance concerned me for the future of magic, and that was the portrayal of the action on a huge screen above the stage. The image was so colorful, clear and sharp, that it took one’s eyes away from what was happening live just below it.

I know, more mis-direction, plus the ability to let everyone in a large auditorium see the action.

However, to an audience accustomed to movie and video special effects, what happens on a screen is often absent the sense of wonder, since any illusion can be accomplished electronically with the push of a button. Magic, like music, is best experienced live.

The beauty of live magic is that it restores, without computers or other paraphernalia, a sense of wonder at what man or woman can accomplish unaided.

What we do now without thinking about it—- fly through the air on metal birds, or converse face to face with magicians in other countries– would have gotten our not-so-distant ancestors burned at the stake. But we’re not doing it ourselves, and, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we don’t even know how it works.

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

Definitive Performances By Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I wondered how Portland Ovations had managed to attract such a large audience to Hannaford Hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As soon as I heard the first bars of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (Op. 16), it all became clear. These people must have heard artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center before, and knew that the afternoon’s performances would define what to listen for in years too come.

The Society comprises prominent musicians from around the world, who collaborate as trios, quartets, chamber orchestras or other ensembles to perform works from the entire chamber music repertoire. Appearing under the auspices of Portland Ovations were: Gilles Vonsattel, piano, Arnaud Sussmann , violin, Paul Neubauer, viola and Paul Watkins, cello.

They played a program centered around the Dvorák Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, including works that influenced or were influenced by that seminal composition. And what playing. They might have been together for a century to have developed such a degree of coordination. One could see them smiling at each other when listening for the beats that would define a microtone of pitch differential.

The early Beethoven quartet was simply gorgeous, perhaps more melodic and easily accessible on first hearing than his later works. One could see why Dvorak might have loved it.

Everything about the performance was almost perfect—the balance between instruments, precise entrances and phrase endings (the latter more difficult than anything else), dynamics, lyrical singing tones where appropriate, and so on, but most compelling was the sheer joy of playing. The overall impression was one of confidence and solidity, forming the basis of free expression. And they retuned between every movement.

After the Beethoven came the Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10, written by Ernõ Dohnányi in 1902, and making even greater use of folk motifs than Dvorák. While not in the same league as the Beethoven quartet, it was fascinating in its innovations, beginning with a melody over a bagpipe drone in the first bars, and ending with a strong sforzando. Its tonal ambiguity made one realize just how much folk music provided a doorway to atonality.

Too much perfection is inhuman, so I was happy to hear a single wrong note from the piano during the passionate opening movement of the Dvorak piano quartet. (Maybe he did it on purpose.) The rest was a definitive rendering of one of the most melodic works in the repertoire.

Sometimes it was bit too lush, as in the best known and repetitive melodic passages, accompanied by a treble piano obligato. It conjured up memories of the Plaza Palm Court and its strolling musicians. But that was the fault of the composer, not his interpreters.

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

Dancers and Musicians Shine in “Play and Play”

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
“Play and Play”
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 25, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a collaboration that works flawlessly. I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t at Merrill Auditorium Wednesday night for “Play and Play,” featuring the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Under the auspices of Portland Ovations BTJ/AJC assembled local musicians and dancers for an absolutely riveting evening of contemporary ballet. As a friend remarked about “D-Man in the Waters,” the last of three ballets on the program, it was as if the dancers ”floated on a sea of music.”

The music in question was the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 20, played by Robert Lehmann, Dino Liva, Dean Stein and Yasmin Vitalius, violin, Kimberly Lehmann and Kirsten Monke, viola, and Eliza Meyer and Benjamin Noyes, cello.

I have seldom heard this work performed as well in concert; as ballet music it verged on the miraculous. It certainly inspired the dancers who, in addition to those of the company, included 13 from Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, PATH (Portland Arts and Technology High School) and the Portland Ballet.

They had rehearsed for only a week, according to the program, but they might have been dancing this program for years,

It made me wonder why other traveling companies do not also take advantage of the tremendous pool of talent available in Maine. Even the Andante of the Mozart String Quartet No. 23 in F Major (K. 590) for “Spent Days Out Yonder,” easily filled Merrill Auditorium. Live music for dance cannot even be compared to a recording, to which some shows resort.

Speaking of recordings, the second piece on the program, “Continuous Replay,” combined (a little) live music from early and late Beethoven Quartets, with a recorded sound rack that included such acoustic icons as count-downs and the description of the Honey Badger that went viral on the internet a few years ago.

Jenna Riegel was superb as “the clock,” which almost disintegrates during a speeded up version of a famous Beethoven quartet passage.

Each of the three ballets was marked by the indefinable atmosphere characteristic of this company. It includes an infinite umber of clever and dramatic poses, motions and lifts, all stemming from natural movement. Gender differences are dissolved into a human unity, and there is little display of athletic prowess—the remarkable is taken for granted.

What is most striking is the sense of community. In “D-Man in the Waters,” which is a sort of ”in Memoriam,” various types of intimate relationships come and go, but there is always human sympathy, even under the sea.

The program ended with cheers and a long standing ovation, which the musicians shared with the dancers on stage.

(The written program includes one of my favorite quotes, from Jasper Johns on the creation of art: “…take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it.” Rather like Bertrand Russell’s observation that all the world’s work consists of moving something from one place to another.)

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

Haimovitz and VOICE: “If Music Be the Food of Love…”

Matt Haimovitz and “Voice”
Portland Ovations “If Music Be the Food of Love…”
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Feb. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Cellist Matt Haimovitz and the vocal trio, “Voice,” have a devoted following. There was a surprisingly large audience at Hannaford Hall on Friday night, in spite of 10 inches of snow and icy roads. Most people stayed after the concert to meet the artists.

Haimovitz, one of today’s grand masters of the cello, is also known for his eccentric choices of repertoire and for performing in unusual venues. I saw him at the Odd Fellows Hall in Buckfield and at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, where he played his own amazing version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”

Now he is collaborating with “Voice,” founded in 2006 by Emily Burn, Victoria Couper and Clemmie Franks. The problem, as Hamovitz explained, was that there was no repertoire for cello and vocal trio.
That difficulty was solved by holding a contest for the best settings of a Shakespearean sonnet (numbers 8, 30, or 60), three of which were played on Friday: “Like as the Waves” by Filipe Sousa, “Sonnet 60” (setting the same text) by Božo Banović, and another “Like as the waves,” by Diana Rosenblum, all of which made good use of the similarities in timbre between voice and instrument. Sometimes one could barely tell which was which.

There is a problem with musical settings of poems (and vocal music in general) which has nothing to do with the ability of the singers. It is rare that the whole (of music and verse) is more than the sum of the parts.

The poem, like a Shakespearean sonnet, is magical on its own, and music, no matter how well composed, obscures the words. (I would rather hear an opera in the original, partly because I can’t understand the libretto in English either.)

“Voice” opened the concert with “Caritas habundat” (Love abounds), by Hildegard of Bingen (12th C), in a setting for cello and trio that was quite effective, with the cello being the basso continuo of a quartet. There were two other works by the famous abbess, but a little goes a long way, especially when we have no idea what her music sounded like.

My favorite among the collaborations was the fourth movement of the Philip Glass String Quartet No. 3, (“Mishima”). Haimovitz played the cello part, with “Voice” taking viola and first and second violins. While such a transcription would be too difficult for a Beethoven quartet (for example) the highly repetitive nature of Glass’ composition makes it ideal for singing.

Haimovitz solo was as remarkable as ever, as was his pairing of disparate composers. A Prelude by Philip Glass was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite, No. 1 in G Major. After intermission a piece entitled “Es War” (2015), by David Sanford was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite V in C minor. The first work, which begins with a long pizzicato section, is the epitome of violence, to which the Bach, as inventive as it is, was a welcome antidote.

“Voice” was at its best in old English ballads, such as Morley’s “It Was a Lover and his Lass,” in which the words and the music originated together. They were also fine in modern, humorous songs by Ayanna Witter-Johnson to texts by Jean “Binta” Breeze: “on cricket, sex and housework,” which begins “I have never loved ironing,” followed by a succession of double-entendres,” and the romantic “just in case.”

The concert concluded with a brilliant “Who by Fire,” a Leonard Cohen song arranged by Luna Pearl Woolf. Cohen is one of the few musician-poets as eclectic and inventive as Haimovitz.

Appropriate to Valentine’s Day (when Roman teenagers could legally play house for a day) was the encore, a traditional wedding processional from southern France. Then out into the ice and snow: “Ice and snow, take it slow.” Maybe someone should set that road sign to music. I can hear R. Murray Schafer’s swirling adagio now.

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