ArtsWatch guest post: In praise of music alive and rites ancient

Composer Jeff Winslow reviews Marie Chouinard's 'Rite of Spring' in Seattle and the Oregon Symphony

Montreal's Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs The Rite of Spring Thursday-Saturday at Portland State University

Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs The Rite of Spring
Thursday-Saturday at Portland State University.



“Heartfelt precision”—seems contradictory doesn’t it? But that’s the phrase that comes to mind when considering the Oregon Symphony’s performance Monday night. Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade bounced, strutted, and sang from movement to movement. The band responded crisply to music director Carlos Kalmar’s subtly flexible direction. I could never say for sure that here, they were pressing ahead, or there, they were holding back, but they never sounded mechanical. Posthorn trumpet soloist Jeffrey Work betrayed a slight nervousness, perhaps, in this way: Though his tone was pure and his intonation flawless, it sometimes happened that the first instance of a difficult phrase betrayed a slight rhythmic irregularity. But he always nailed it the next time it came up, leaving me with a smile on my face.

Mozart has some fun with this solo, like Beethoven with his rustic bassoon in the scherzo of the Sixth Symphony: It only plays when the orchestra is playing the one chord the solo instrument can hit. When the orchestra modulates away or indulges in bits of scales, the posthorn—an archaic valveless horn used to signal the arrival or departure of a courier or mailman —is silent.

After intermission, Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” began so softly, many in the audience didn’t seem to realize it had begun. As it gathered force, I heard subtle gradations in timbre and dynamics that I can only describe as wondrous. Aside from beautifully realizing Strauss’s orchestral skill, the OSO’s rendition brought home to me just how a committed live performance can never really be replaced by a recording. This clarity and sensitivity continued throughout the often convoluted soundworld of the piece despite its over-the-top Romanticism —so much so that, toward the end, a slightly ragged entrance by a pianissimo brass choir stuck out unexpectedly. In every other way the band really outdid themselves on this one.

Nor did they lose focus in the same composer’s “Four Last Songs,” which had I eagerly anticipated the whole night. Rising star soprano Amber Wagner, the hometown favorite (originally from Hillsboro), poured her richly colored voice into the hall, while ably avoiding the twin sins of swooping and excessive vibrato. However, I must regretfully report that, while still in the land of the heartfelt, precision seemed too eager to wander away. Did something disturb her concentration on Strauss’s mercurially shifting harmonies? A friend reported her Saturday night performance as brilliant, eliciting a roaring standing ovation and extra curtain calls, and one Strauss excerpt that pops up on YouTube betrays no such problems. On Monday, however, the ovation was slow to develop and barely supported the standard three bows.

Wagner leaned back in her chair while listening to “Death and Transfiguration,” which Kalmar presented as a prelude to the songs. Was she tired? Yet she radiated a sense of enjoyment the whole time she was on stage. The mystery was ameliorated by the continuing heartfelt precision of the orchestra, which has the last word as the evening sun goes down. Pianissimo muted brass add an inner glow to the final chord, as Strauss leaves us with one final example of his superb orchestral imagination.

Spring Fever

To recall what it’s like when an orchestra is all heart, and precision hasn’t yet been crossed off the “to do” list, I have only to cast my mind back to last Thursday’s performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” by the the UW Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Pasternak, which accompanied the dancing of the Compagnie Marie Chouinard at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  (The company is bringing the dance to Portland this weekend, starting Thursday night, though with recorded music.) In honor of the 100th anniversary of the premiere of this seminal 20th century masterpiece, the UW Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Pasternak provided live accompaniment. Of course, dance is the star of this particular touring show, but only live music in the pit can hint at the full dimensions of the infamous riot-torn premiere, which shocked the audiences of the time in every possible way—choreography, costume and story—as much as, maybe even more than, the music.

As at the 1913 premiere, the first half of the company’s program used Chopin’s music, though Chouinard’s wildly kinetic and ever-inventive choreography is worlds away from the sedate and delicate “Les Sylphides.” Since “Chopin Preludes” won’t be seen in Portland (the company is instead presenting its 1994 dance to Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” the earlier and gentler but equally revolutionary work that presaged 20th century music), I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say it fascinated and astonished and generally keyed up expectations.

So I was good and ready when intermission ended and it was time for the first bassoon of the UW symphony orchestra to sweat bullets for his famous, stratospheric opening solo. To his credit, he opened strongly and the only misstep duplicated a previous correct note. The band continued pretty much on this level: they kept it together and propelled it forward with all the heart in the world, but it was often a bit rough around the edges, and very occasionally, a piece of the puzzle turned up missing. The orchestra’s performance was nevertheless quite an accomplishment, considering that their first task was to synchronize with the intricate and often hyperactive choreography, and they were after all a student group on opening night. And who knows: it might well be that this performance was more representative of the one at the premiere—to the extent people were able to hear it over the riot—than the near-flawless performances typical of major orchestras today, and which will no doubt be on the soundtrack in Portland.

And what will Portlanders see on stage? The choreography, with its naked breasts and abundance of phallic appendages attached to what little costume is present, is probably about as outrageous as choreography can be without actually committing a violent felony onstage. In one section, dancers (of both sexes I think) even held these appendages to their foreheads and their crotches. So that measured up pretty well to the premiere also.

But of course these days we have seen everything, and there was no need for any latter-day Florent Schmitt to shout at unruly patrons, “Shut up, whores of Mercer Island!” Surprisingly the impact was somewhat diffuse. (In fairness to Chouinard, she warns you in her program notes that she’s not interested in following the traditional narrative.) A dance I’d looked forward to from seeing a preview video, involving rising and falling horned heads during the Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One, turned out to occur during a different part of the piece, and while effective enough, in the preview it had been riveting.

The original Rite evoked an ancient human sacrifice ritual. But at the moment when the sacrificial victim normally is first spotlighted, the only dancer on stage was male. This raised an interesting possibility of gender substitution, but that dancer didn’t consistently remain the center of attention through the rest of the piece.

In general there was little obviously coordinated choreography for the full company (read “tribe”), so it was hard to get much of that sense of mob-driven menace that’s never far away in the music. And yet the various rituals and antics did indeed convey a glimpse of elaborate customs whose meaning has been lost in the distant past.

Of course the music wound me up as it always does, even when I play it badly on the piano. I certainly had no trouble staying awake, which I’ve been known to struggle with after drinking so much wine with dinner even with my cautionary double espresso. But all in all I came away from this interpretation, fascinating as it was, without ever really having felt the earth move.

Portland’s White Bird Dance presents Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s The Rite of Spring Thursday through Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.  Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a founding member of Cascadia Composers.

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