Saturday, October 25, 2008

Three reviews

Each of the last three nights, my wife and I took advantage of the cultural riches Chicago has to offer and attended a different event. I have said before that I am far more an uninformed fan than an expert, so these are, of necessity, the scribblings of an amateur. Read these at your own peril.

Wednesday night, it was off to the Lyric Opera. Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is an opera I've seen once before, and, other than a couple of hit tunes, I've found it rather flimsy. The story is preposterous, even by opera standards; worse yet, it is close to non-existent (the tale is told that the librettists, upon hearing the music the 24-year-old Bizet had written, apologized for the poor quality of the story). I won't bother to summarize, it's irrelevant to whether you'll enjoy it.

There are only four singing parts, one of which is the small role of the high priest, so we're left with two male friends and the woman they both love. The most moving and famous song is the friendship duet between the two men, and it was handled well at the Lyric. One thing that irks me about many of the recordings I've heard is that the remarkable flute parts often get swallowed up; Wednesday night, the flute was left as the third partner that it should be.

The rest of the opera just doesn't grab me much. There's some nice orchestration, if not as impressive as in the 12-years-older Bizet's Carmen. It's all pleasant, at times even lovely, but there's really nothing here that grabbed me emotionally. I have this problem with French operas in general, that they're light and delightful, but the stories are thin and the music unmemorable. Perhaps that's an unfair generalization, but it has been pretty consistent over the years. All that said, the performances by Nathan Gunn, Eric Cutler, and Nicole Cabell were wonderful. They invested this opera with as much gravity as possible through their singing and acting.

Thursday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The hot young conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya brought his new Caminos del Inka project to Symphony Center, an attempt to bring the music of the Andes (he is from Lima) to the orchestral stage. The pieces ranged from folk tunes of the 18th century (or before) to a couple of works on which the ink was barely dry. The only one most people had heard before was El condor pasa, and that only because Paul Simon worked it into a famous Simon & Garfunkel song.

I am generally unmoved by these experiments. The brilliance of Dvorak or Bartok came from their ability to take folk tunes and spin them into serious orchestral works. Barring that, one ends up either with music that is inflated to fit a large orchestra, or that is largely standard fare with exotic accents (as in Soro's Tres aires chilenos, which came off as stirring Hollywood-type music with South American influences - not horrible, but nothing that couldn't be pasted together by a Waxman or a Herrmann).

Added to this was a slide show that detracted from realization of the music. It's difficult to trust that there is a complete commitment to the orchestra when the audience is asked to watch Peruvian scenes or, worse yet, completely unrelated abstract images. These are invariably attempts at expanding an audience that is presumably assumed to wish to multitask, but the images condition the music in ways that are almost certainly not the intention of the composer.

One piece was called Illapa, a tone poem for flute and orchestra, a piece composed in 2004. This one featured a soloist on Andean flutes, Jessica Warren-Acosta; oddly enough, she mixed the South American flutes in with standard flutes to no particular effect. Another was Mariel, a piece by the well-known contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov. This featured a remarkable solo effort by cellist Kenneth Olsen, but the orchestral part seemed underwritten and incompatible. I'd love to hear the original piece for cello and marimba.

There were a couple of other pieces, but the whole thing was pretty much unmemorable. When one looks at the "standard" orchestral program, where there is a short piece, then a concerto, finishing with a symphonic work, any of these seven pieces would fit into the first slot and give the audience some exposure to the culture. For a complete concert, these works just don't hold up.

Harth-Bedoya seems to be trying to bring the success of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project to gain some recognition of the music of his homeland. It's a noble effort, one that is worth pursuing, but not one that I feel works at this stage with a high-powered orchestra like the CSO. If the audience reaction was any indication, my opinion was widely shared.

Friday night, it was off to the Joffrey Ballet. The three works on the fall program were quite varied, and the Joffrey did its usual impeccable job of bringing them to us. The company may not get quite the attention it did when it was based in New York, but, in my limited experience with "the dance," I find them truly superior. (As an example, the ABT gave a performance of Swan Lake in Chicago a couple of years ago, and the corps de ballet was appallingly out of synch. The Joffrey rarely has these problems.)

Each of the three works, though this is not expressly stated, seem to be focused around a series of pas de deux. Perhaps it betrays a lack of sophistication on my part, but I generally enjoy solo turns and large group dances over duets. So there was not enough of what I like for my taste, but there was still plenty here to enjoy.

The first piece, Postcards, was Robert Joffrey's final work. The revelation to me was the music of Erik Satie, a composer about whom I've always been pretty indifferent. (I own a version of his Gymnopédies which is dreadful, it's played so slowly.) And it was quite good here. The dancing was not so appealing to me. There wasn't anything wrong with it, it just struck me as repetitive and uninteresting. Maybe it was just me.

The second piece, In The Night, was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, famous for his Broadway and Hollywood work. This piece was so much more, showing three different phases of love. The last in particular I found quite moving as danced by Suzanne Lopez and Patrick Simoniello, but all the couples were good. This was kind of a revelation, as I had not realized that Robbins had created "classic" ballets, but this was absolutely gorgeous.

The final work, Age of Innocence, is a new piece by Edwaard Liang. I thought it got off to a rough start; the first two parts (of five) seemed stock and static. But it came into its own in a dance for four men, then moved into what was, in effect, a duet for Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani, two of the real stars of the Joffrey. This part was amazing, with novel holds and positions, and was followed by a fast-paced finale that marked Liang as a choreographer to watch.

So that's enough culture for me for one week, it's time for a rainy weekend of football (and assorted chores and things).

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