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NSO New Moves

Some of the great scores of music history were made to accompany dancing. All too often, musicians and conductors play these without thinking about the choreography that went with them, something that has become evident to me in the last ten years, thanks to the chance to review a lot of ballet. Even so, when one cannot see these dances live -- some of these ballets are rarely mounted, after all -- there is the invaluable resource of Internet video, where many original choreographies, or reconstructions of them, can be viewed. The first thing that musicians and conductors, faced with one of these ballet scores, should do is to watch such videos, to get an idea of the movements that went with the music they are going to play. This is the strongest idea -- or it could have been -- behind the National Symphony Orchestra's New Moves series, a trilogy of concerts that may not have succeeded on all points but is ultimately the latest evidence of Christoph Eschenbach's willingness to embrace innovative programming.

The music selected for the first two of these concerts did not interest me all that much, but the third program, heard and seen last night, offered the strongest combination, still with some reservations. Sadly, scores that instantly come to my mind in this context, like Debussy's Jeux or Satie's Parade or Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat or Stravinsky's Pulcinella or Les noces, were not included. For the third concert, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins led two pieces that were rarely heard contemporary pieces not particularly associated with choreography. Michael Daugherty's Red Cape Tango, the conclusion of the Grammy-winning but not all that interesting Metropolis Symphony, has the rhythmic ostinato of the Habanera, complete with castanets, but is so repetitive that it grows tired about half-way through. Daugherty incorporated the first couple phrases of the Dies Irae, a long sequence whose later melodic material could have added some much-needed variety. The Sinfonia No. 4 ("Strands"), co-commissioned by the NSO from Washington-born composer George Walker, seemed even less about dance, a rather monochromatic wash of dissonant clusters that seemed to go nowhere, partly due to the pedestrian conducting of Wilkins, whose left hand generally did little other than mirror his baton hand, orderly but not revealing much else.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Jessica Lang Dance, waltzing delightfully with Leila Josefowicz and the NSO (Washington Post, May 17)

Anne Midgette, NSO’s ‘New Moves’ festival closes with Jessica Lang and Leila Josefowicz (Washington Post, May 17)

---, NSO New moves and UMd 'Appalachian Spring' join dance with orchestras (Washington Post, May 2)

---, NSO festival aims for fusion of symphony and dance at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, May 8)

Robert Battey, National Symphony Orchestra's New Moves symphony + dance mini-festival (Washington Post, May 12)
The final piece on the first half, Copland's Appalachian Spring, was made for a choreography by Martha Graham. Seeing it danced live transformed the way that I hear that score, and anyone studying or playing it should watch it. The NSO played only the suite for full orchestra, which is another removal from the music's origins in dance, but even these selections are often boring without the story of the ballet and Graham's movements. The absence of dance was already felt in the first half, but it became glaring by comparison with the second half, for which the Jessica Lang Dance company gave the premiere of their director's new choreography, Scape, to the accompaniment of the violin concerto of John Adams. The soloist was Leila Josefowicz (pictured), who has performed the composer's work for electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur, with both the NSO and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in recent years. Adams completed the violin concerto in 1995 1993, after which it was used for a choreography by New York City Ballet's Peter Martins. The music percolates with energy, with unusual sounds contributed by two synthesizers (whose players were seated near the conductor's podium) and a range of percussion instruments.

Lang's choreography went against the grain of the music for the most part, opening slowly with the nine dancers -- five women and four men, costumed in pajama-like outfits of soft colors, rarely featured in solos -- appearing in the chorister seats above the stage. In that location, movements were constrained, and almost no gestures seemed to have been inspired by the antic, creeping music, except when the soloist's cadenza corresponded with the disappearance of all but one of the group. As the dancers took the stage, extended out from where the orchestra sat by a platform bathed in icy blue-purple light, space-music sounds again seemed not to match with the clumping and spreading actions of the dancers, including some impressively long lifts. Only in the return of a more manic tempo in the third movement did the choreography seem related to the music, taking elements from various popular dances. Lang's style is abstract rather than narrative, recalling other choreographers' work without really adding up to its own character, but one might describe the story, if there had to be one, as the process of bodies being awakened by music, gradually taking on its pulses and gestures.

This concert repeats tonight, at 8 pm, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


MUSE said...

As always, this is a cool review. To me, all the efforts made by conductors and producers of classical music in the last thirty years seem to be attempts to dress the productions (concerts) up in different garb - visual gimmickry that puts a new face on the same old music but actually does almost nothing to enhance the music itself. Indeed, how can it? What we need is NEW music, music that can stand next to Bach's, Beethoven's, Mozart's, Tchaikovsky's, Brahms', Stravinsky's, Prokofiev's, etc. without embarrassment. However, I have waited forever for this to happen and I'm afraid it never will - the Muse has left the building.

Mather Pfeiffenberger said...

I agree that the festival was worth a try, even if everything may not have worked. However, from the beginning the intention was to make the program selections all-American (and thus cover that part of the repertory and implied mandate of the NSO that Eschenbach seems not to be interested in), so the items on your wish list were never part of the plan. Doesn't mean they couldn't be included in a follow-up festival. The Walker was a bit of a stretch; the dance connection may have been implied in the sprituals that Walker says he quoted (though I couldn't hear them). The Adams Violin Concerto was composed in 1993 and not expressly for a choreography by the New York City Ballet; they took it up later. And finally, yes, one's appreciation for Appalachian Spring can be deepened by seeing the Graham choreography, but I would hardly characterize the music as "boring" and generations of music-lovers would seem to agree. As I'm sure you're aware, the full ballet score was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks to both of you for the kind comments, and to Martin for the correction about the Adams, which I have noted in the review. As for "Appalachian Spring" being boring -- de gustibus etc. There are long, still passages in that score, which glide by when you are watching the choreography. Without the dancers, I at least am a little bored.

Mather Pfeiffenberger said...

Thanks, Charles. My name is Mather, btw. (Don't worry, I get called everything. :-) )

Charles T. Downey said...

Apologies, Mather -- feel free to call me Chip in return. ;-)

jfl said...

Does it really mather, though?