All posts by Philippa Kiraly

Classical Music [email] Philippa Kiraly comes to The SunBreak from The Gathering Note where she covered classical music for three years. She has been steeped in her field since early childhood and began writing as a critic in 1980. She has written for a variety of publications, as second critic for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal from 1983-1991 and, since moving to Seattle that year, in the same capacity for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise.

‘Totally, Imaginatively Original': the Forsythe Showcase at PNB

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The first impression left by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening performance of an all-Forsythe repertory (through March 22 at McCaw Hall) was that this choreographer’s work suits the company through and through. The choice of pieces gave an opportunity to show off large numbers of the company from principals to corps members in solo or semi-solo roles, and everywhere there was good dancing, sometimes stellar.

There were three pieces on Friday’s program at McCaw Hall, two new to Seattle: “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” and “New Suite,” and one already in the company’s repertoire: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”

“Exactitude” has been described as 30 minutes telescoped into ten, and requires lightning speed of movement–which nonetheless never looked rushed on Friday. Danced by three women, Leta Biasucci, Carrie Imler and Margaret Mullin; and two men, Benjamin Griffiths and Jonathan Porretta; it uses music from Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Biasucci danced these fast and intricate steps so cleanly she sparkled, Porretta’s energy lit up the stage, with the other three dancers closely with them.

Forsythe’s genius lies in his creative use of classical ballet moves and the way he combines them both for individuals and in couples, and in relation to the music. He also makes use in his own way of the oppositional balances used to such effect in Greek and Roman statuary, as was pointed out in the preconcert lecture, and this is noticeable throughout, though in fleeting images. Nothing ever looks contrived and it’s totally, imaginatively original.

All this showed particularly in “New Suite,” nine short pas de deux for eighteen different dancers: four set to Handel’s music, one to Bach, and three to that of Luciano Berio.

A slow, flowing Handel largo became embodied in the performance by Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee. Murphy’s entire body carried through the beautiful shapes of the music’s phrases and the two married to that the unceasing flow of their movements. This set the tone for a series of fine performances, the choreography for the Berio much edgier, very different in emotional quality from the Handel and Bach. Ezra Thomson, Angelica Generosa, Karel Cruz, Sarah Ricard Orza and Jahna Frantziskonis all stood out in what was a very high level of company dance.

In between these two, the PNB orchestra under Emil de Cou played the overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. This season the orchestra has been showcased with a work by itself at every performance in celebration of its 25th anniversary. This time, its unfortunate placing in the program meant there was a buzz of conversation as everybody discussed “Exactitude” after the curtain went down, and they went on talking throughout the orchestra’s performance.

The longest piece, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” doesn’t use the orchestra but is set to electronic music. Setting, costumes and music are reminiscent of a large gym in which one can hear in the background what could be the thwack of balls on rackets, the clang of machines, and the thuds and bumps of crashing cacophony. Add to this nine dancers in dark leotards, with the muscles rippling on the men, particularly Seth Orza and, for the set, just an interrupted band of lighter color high on the back curtain.

An undercurrent of competition goes on and even a little sexy encouragement with some hip sways by at least one–Lindsi Dec in this performance–as one dancer or two comes to the fore to show off prowess. It’s a long piece, perhaps a little too long given the unremitting clash of the music, though not for the dance itself; and high energy, which the dancers kept up to the end.

All in all this is a fascinating program, the first time in this country that there has been a program entirely of works by William Forsythe. It had enough variety to sustain that, and indeed it might take more than one visit to assimilate it.

A Superb Reprise of ‘Don Quixote’ at PNB

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For those who saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote three years ago, it is a welcome return. For those who missed it then it’s a chance now to see—and as of now the only place in the U.S. that you are able to see—this colorful, sparkling production.

Actually, Ratmansky is not the only choreographer and stager of this wonderful version of the old story. It was first produced for the Bolshoi by the great Marius Petipa 145 years ago, and later updated by Alexander Gorsky in 1900.

Actors Tom Skerritt as the Don and Allen Galli as his peasant sidekick, Sancho Panza, reprise their roles of three years ago. They’ve added to their interpretations: Skerritt’s confused old aristocrat is even more vulnerable and Galli’s Sancho has a noticeable bumbling tenderness in looking after him. Their travel adventures and the Don’s visions are the center of the story, tying together the disparate venues and giving the choreographers full rein to their imaginations.

Opening night saw the company’s finest ballerina, Carla Körbes, in the role of peasant girl Kitri, while Batkhurel Bold danced her lover (check the rest of the performance casting here). Retired character dancer Uko Gorter returned as Kitri’s dad, bent on forcing her to marry a fop, Gamache, full of airs and graces, performed by Jonathan Porretta. The vicissitudes of the couple are the other thread of the story.

Körbes, who retires at the end of the season, danced at a peak of artistry, as superbly as I’ve ever seen her. It’s a long, difficult, demanding role through which she sailed as fun-loving, feisty girl, defiant daughter and vision for the Don, achieving dazzling fouettés and holding herself, twice, in a long lift over Bold’s head. In the last act when she had been on for well over two and a half hours, she floated through a slow pas de deux with Bold, requiring extraordinary strength, balance and flow. There was yet more after, not as difficult but needing quick timing and spirit. She slipped in what might have been a large drop of sweat on the floor but recovered fast.

Bold danced at his best likewise. An excellent partner, he danced virtuosic solos, including splits in mid-air and multiple fast turns, always with solid balance.

Porretta reprised his role as Gamache, a non-dancing part in which he excelled as the comic element, never going out of character even in the bows. Karel Cruz made an imposing toreador with Lindsi Dec as his girlfriend, but most enchanting was the capework of the toreros, their huge deep pink, gold-lined capes flashing in great circles.

The cast is large, with villagers, toreros, wandering players, and in the Don’s dream, monsters and moving cacti and an expressive moon, then later dryads and Cupid in his vision where Kitri becomes his Dulcinea. There’s more: gypsies in the mountains who hide the lovers when her father and Gamache come in hot pursuit, followed by the Don and Sancho on their nag and donkey; the dryads’ bamboo bower where Cupid hangs out.

This is a show to delight all ages. Jerome Kaplan’s scenery and costumes and James F. Ingalls’ lighting conjuring sunny Spain enhance the dancing, while the PNB orchestra, playing its best under Emil de Cou, supported the dancers throughout. Conducting for ballet is an art in itself.

The production continues until February 8 at McCaw Hall.

Composers from the Baltic

Photo by Ann Bowen Photography.
Photo by Ann Bowen Photography.

Sunday afternoon at St Stephen’s Church in Laurelhurst, Philharmonia Northwest gave an exciting concert of works from the eastern Baltic, with works by Estonia’s Arvo Pärt, Latvia’s Pēteris Vasks and Finland’s Jean Sibelius, the first two composers still living and Sibelius from almost a century earlier.

It’s a local community orchestra, but hardly describable as amateur, many of its members having music degrees and all of them having studied seriously for years.*  It’s been around since 1976, first as Thalia Chamber Orchestra, changing its name to Philharmonia Northwest in 1987, and with the same music director Roupen Shakarian building it for 24 years until 2010.
The orchestra entered a new era in 2011 under Julia Tai, an up and coming conductor with impressive credentials now beginning her third season as music director.

First up was Pärt’s Fratres, composed as music that has the same atmosphere as that sung by monastery monks, only here played by an orchestra. From the first notes, it’s peaceful and meditative, as it starts with soft drum and claves (wood sticks knocked together) over a drone in the low strings which continues and is joined by the other instruments in a hypnotic, lulling melody. The work repeats the short rhythmic drum and claves phrase alternately with the song phrase style of the melodic part which is never quite the same, and all of which gradually swells louder and then gradually dies back to the same soft notes as the start. The whole gripped the audience and at the end there was long silence before the applause.

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To begin with, Vask’s Flute Concerto from 2009, here receiving only its second U.S. performance with soloist Paul Taub, has the same gentleness, with the sound of a breeze blowing, soft bells and string tremolo, unhurried. The flute sings high above the other harmony, very much part of it rather than as a separate entity with an accompaniment. Both first and third movements are slow, the third elegiac in feel; slow stately with a hint maybe of Elgar’s robustness, but with thoughtful, beautiful melody. The second is a total change of mood: brash, syncopated, impudent, fun. Vasks makes brilliant use of the different instruments, and at times there is even a feel of fairground barrel organ in the rhythm. The busy flute flies over the top, and in the course of the concerto uses techniques like overblowing, flutter-tonguing, even humming while playing.

Vasks’ concerto is a substantial work which deserves wide hearing, original without being in anyway inaccessible to the general ear. Taub gave a fine performance, playing almost continuously throughout with a long cadenza in the second movement. He knows Vasks and has been able to consult with him on how his music is played.  The second movement particularly is tricky for the orchestra, which Tai kept well together with her clear beat and indications, though there were moments which seemed harder for the orchestra.

Again, the appreciative audience gave the music moments of silence before applauding.

The Lemminkainen Suite of Sibelius is really a symphony with a storied program, the second section of which, “The Swan of Tuonela,” is the best-known. Philharmonia played that, but as well the first and fourth sections, to my mind just as good, with the sportive delights of the first wind theme, the excellent English horn solo (played by Terry Pickering) of the second and  the energy and tense moments of the last.

The orchestra’s performance was impressive for the whole concert. Tai’s indications were instantly followed, her beat was notably clear, and the orchestra felt well and efficiently rehearsed. This young conductor, in her very early 30s, is already making a name for herself, not just here in the Northwest (she was tapped by the Seattle Symphony to conduct its Celebrate Asia concert earlier this year) but abroad. Somebody to watch.

 

* All of the orchestra members have studied music seriously at some point, and about half of them have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in music. About a third are currently employed as music teachers or freelance musicians, but the rest have jobs outside the field, as software engineers, attorneys, a veterinarian, financial specialists, etc.

 

 

Ecstasies sometimes, sometimes not

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Choral Arts’ program, Bach Plus: The Ecstasies Above, performed at St. Joseph Parish Friday night, was a draw for anyone who loves Bach cantatas and for those who love the adventures of new choral music, knowing they would be sung by one of our most accomplished choirs under conductor Robert Bode.

The new choral works, “The Ecstasies Above” from 2006 by Tarik O’Regan and “The Deepness of the Blue” from 2012 by William Averitt, met every promise in both quality of the music and performance, as did two sacred pieces from the 19th century, Rheinberger’s “Sanctus” and Mendelssohn’s “Richter mich, Gott.”

Alas, the Bach did not. It was quite a shock to hear this group sound somewhat tentative, even weak in the first cantata, “Der Herr denket an uns.” Thought the balance was good and so was the chorus’ intonation, the whole approach sounded over-articulated to the point of feeling disjointed and preventing forward momentum. The soprano soloist was not up to the challenge, though the tenor and baritone duet came off much better. This cantata opened the performance and Bach’s “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden,” ended it, again sounding thinner, without the conviction and shaping given the works in between. The choir did not sound comfortable.

Perhaps more time was given to rehearsing the two 21st century works, neither of them easy and both superbly achieved. Phrasing and intonation were excellent and pure high voices soared angelically.

O’Regan’s “Ecstasies” is a setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem “Israfel,” the angel whose “heartstrings are a lute.” Requiring a string quartet, choir and eight soloists, it sounded otherworldly much of the time, the singers floating or swooping up, over and down in close canon, or giving looping calls in high women’s voices, almost like yodeling. O’Regan uses the instrumentalists to add solid grounding often in restless opposition to the serenity of what was going on in the voices. One could also hear indications of lute heartstrings. It left an indelible impression and a strong wish to hear it again.

Succeeding it, Averitt’s work set five poems by Langston Hughes, his third song cycle on Hughes’ poems and using similar harmonic idioms and rhythms, with piano four-hands for accompaniment. This, too was a mesmerizing performance and quite different from the O’Regan, though both use a modern tonal language, and both use beautiful poetry. Each Hughes poem setting was different, one with gentle, relaxing singing over running rippling notes high notes on the piano and quite unrelated-seeming lower chords in the other, another an unaccompanied poignant lament for a dead friend, followed immediately with fast furious piano and emphatic loud singing describing the inevitability of death, being a drum calling, and the last, an almost-tango in a minor key, describing the sound of tom-toms. Sly syncopations and jazzy moments slid in, the piano sounding liquid, the singers quieter. The two fine pianists, Lee Thompson and Melissa Loehnig made a major contribution to the whole. This also was deeply satisfying to hear, leaving a wish to hear it again. Composer Averitt was present.

The Rheinberger and Mendelssohn had full-throated, rich performances, the first of praise, the other a prayer, a pleasure to hear. The string quartet accompanying several works comprised violinists Tom Dziekonski and John Kim, violist Sue Jane Bryant and cellist Meg Brennand.

Chamber music with a twist

Branford Marsalis

It takes a lot of courage for a chamber music group playing modern instruments to embark on a concert tour of Baroque music in Seattle, with a superb saxophonist, Branford Marsalis, who is new to the genre and whose instrument was not invented until more than 75 years after the ending of the Baroque era.

Why Seattle particularly? This city has long been a hotbed of Baroque performance, with many first class Baroque musicians living, performing and teaching here, plus a long tradition of stellar international Baroque groups performing here, and it has a musically sophisticated audience well versed in Baroque performance styles.

I wish I could say that the venture was an unqualified success, but while there were some great moments, others were less so.

That said, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is a highly disciplined group of fine musicians. Nineteen string players and a harpsichordist made up the group on the Meany Hall stage, led by concertmaster Meichen Liao-Barnes. The performance was jointly presented by the UW World Series and the Early Music Guild.

The concert included works for the orchestra alone by Bach, Telemann and Locatelli, and works originally written for oboe but which work well for soprano saxophone by Albinoni, Couperin, Dornel and more Bach. The orchestra’s togetherness was impeccable, their tone warm, tempi were right for the works, and the players eschewed bouncing bows on the strings (staccato not being a Baroque technique).  Some players avoided vibrato except as an occasional ornament as was done in Baroque times; others, including unfortunately the continuo cellist, used it continuously. The harpsichord was placed at the back of the group and was hard to hear.

This was less important in the orchestral works where it was part of the general instrumentation, but it mattered a lot in Couperin’s Concerts Royaux: Premier Concert and Dornel’s Oboe Sonata in G Minor, solo works with harpsichord and continuo accompaniment. Marsalis is an impressive musician, extremely musical with wonderful technique, and he had done his homework regarding Baroque performance style, with notes inégales in the Couperin and ornamentation which sounded integral to the music.

Marsalis was at one side in the front, the cellist about ten feet away on the other side, and the harpsichordist about twelve feet back from both of them and mostly inaudible. Had the musicans been close together, both works would have sounded more coherent. As it was, one could enjoy the beauty of Marsalis’ playing.

Playing with the orchestra in Albinoni’s Concerto a cinque for oboe, strings and continuo in C major, and Bach’s Concerto for the same instruments in F major, BWV 1053, he showed how possible it is to use a saxophone to play these works. It would also work well, one imagines, replacing a Baroque trumpet.

An insert gave several last minute program changes but without movements listed or program notes to go with them. This turned out to be quite bewildering at times, particularly for the many audience members not familiar with Baroque music. Telemann’s Don Quichotte, for instance, did not include the narration or any explanation of the different parts, so much of its descriptive passages flew by unrecognized.

The entire concert gave the impression that the performers had had too few rehearsals together, though this will lessen as the group tours, while modern instruments played with vibrato gave a different feel and less spark to this lively music.

Jewels at PNB

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.  PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014.  Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet began the season with a bang Friday, presenting one of Balanchine’s most iconic works, the three-part, evening-length ballet named Jewels. What makes this a particularly memorable revival is that PNB, with the help of a generous patron, invited to coach PNB dancers five of the legendary ballet dancers who premiered this work back in 1967: Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul who danced the lead women in “Emeralds,” Edward Villella who danced the male lead in “Rubies,” and Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise, who led in “Diamonds.” Two dancers went to New York to work with Farrell but the others all came here.

I wish I could say that the performance Friday was equally memorable, but while the company is in general dancing on a very high level these days, it is short of star quality ballerinas with only Carla Korbes, who retires at the end of this season, a wonderful dancer to stir the blood.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec in Emeralds, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.  PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014.  Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec in Emeralds, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Young Leta Biasucci, promoted to soloist Friday after a mere three years with the company has considerable potential. With Jonathan Porretta, a superb dancer who invests every role with drama from the inside, Biasucci danced the couple in “Rubies,” the jazziest, sassiest part of Jewels, set to music of Stravinsky. Biasucci has faultless technique and a fine musical sense. She moves beautifully, but as yet she is like an ice maiden, without the emotion which comes from inside that Porretta has in spades. She reminds me of Kaori Nakamura, the company’s great ballerina who retired last summer, in that when Nakamura arrived at PNB in the mid-1990s, she was another impeccable dancer but emotionally like a steel magnolia. She never ceased to grow and bloom through all her years here, becoming a dancer with power to convey any emotion she wanted, whether a sense of dizzy fun as Swanilda in Coppelia to the passion of Juliet in Romeo et Juliette. Let’s hope Biasucci can grow to do this also.  Laura Tisserand danced the other major role in “Rubies,” perfect for her as she has such a fine sense of timing for anything syncopated.

The first of the three parts of Jewels, “Emeralds” is the hardest to dance and to put across. It is slower, set to gentler music by Faure. The group choreography is the loveliest, but the many solos and duets failed to light a spark, thought William Lin-Yee came closest and did a fine job of partnering.

Korbes with Batkhurel Bold brought her usual magic to “Diamonds,” the grandest of the three set to music of Tchaikovsky. It’s hard to think that this is the last year for this expressive dancer with exquisite technique, but she has had many injuries over the years. Bold made an excellent partner and brought his own bravura to his solos.

The performance started with a tribute to the PNB orchestra, now entering its 25th anniversary. It was built to its current eminence as the best ballet orchestra in the country (not my comment but that of New York critics) by conductor Stewart Kershaw and continues at that level under Emil de Cou. Before each performance this season, there will be an orchestral prelude.  Friday’s was the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G.