Fanfare Ciocarlia stole my heart

The big guys in back row of Fanfare Ciocarlia. The ones who made your bones shake in your body. At Duke Gardens, 9/24/12.

I had planned to write a proper review of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the phenomenal 12-man Gypsy brass band from Romania that appeared in Duke Gardens on a previously quiet Sunday evening (9/24). Presented by Duke Performances to a few hundred deliriously happy people, this rare concert ended DP’s outdoor concerts for the year.

However, I find myself without referents. I’ve never seen, or heard, anything quite like this. And I heard it! I knew it was insane, but we put our blanket down front, about six feet from the speakers and maybe eight from the stage and its forest of microphone stands and swamp of cables. Every instrument was miked, at least once. It was loud. It was brass. The singing was in Romani. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Did you say “dance”?!

A small amount of English was spoken on stage. The clearest word was DANCE! And the crowd went wild, including myself, shimmying in the grass. People who knew the drill stuck dollar bills onto the sweating foreheads of the musicians. Women in hip belts undulated down front, and hot trumpets urged them on. Young girls jumped up on stage. It was full-tilt boogie to song after Gypsy song.

After a full hot set, the crowd begged relentlessly for more–and got it. First, a generous encore, and a firm goodbye. Kisses blown all around. Microphones unclipped, cords untangled. Musicians leave the stage…and re-group around the corner, to parade back again! They waded right into the thick of the crowd and kept on playing, while the roadies and the techies and the producers packed it all up. When Aaron Greenwald said that an auditorium was too small for this band, this is what he meant. Oh, won’t you sta-a-a-y, just a little bit longer…

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It’s the last weekend for prima ballerina Melissa Podcasy at Carolina Ballet. She retires after the all-Weiss program.

Melissa Podcasy photo on Carolina Ballet program (9-15-12, 8 pm) by Tim Lytvinenko.

At 15, Raleigh’s Carolina Ballet ends its first era. Founding principal dancer Melissa Podcasy will retire at the end of this month—in a few days, just a few more performances in Fletcher Opera Theater. The program that opens the Ballet’s season, and closes this chapter of Podcasy’s career comprises four dances by artistic director Robert Weiss. The evening ends with the long work Symposium, which may be his greatest choreography to date. It also includes one last new work for Podcasy, a quiet little story set to Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet in D minor, op. 56, “Voces Intimae.”

Weiss’ Intimate Voices, although sensitive to the beautiful music, doesn’t quite live up to it. The piece suffers from the plodding literal-mindedness freighting many of Weiss’ story ballets—too much stagey business and not enough dancing. An old man (the ever-charming and vital Marin Boieru) receives his many children and their spouses on his birthday. He blows out his cake candle and dies. A funeral ensues. But eldest daughter Melissa Podcasy, who grieves most deeply, can still perceive her father, and there are some lovely bits of emotional dancing for the two of them. The piece suddenly shifts tone and moves into abstraction when all the dancers peel their period mourning costumes to reveal a fresh blue. The dance from that point is quite fine. The cast on the 15th included nearly all the company principals, and it was very nice to see them together. The choreography did not include anything that Podcasy can no longer do, focusing instead on the great skills that remain—her emotionality, the crisp clarity of her line; the expressive arms, the exquisite feet and ankles.

Some of what is missing was evident in Meditation from Thaïs, set to the music by Jules Massenet. Lindsay Purrington and young Adam Crawford Chavis were fluid and sensual in this luscious short piece. Young, they are free to torque and twist, to move with abandon within the strict ballet steps. This was the only piece of the four on the 15th that was really vividly alive on stage.

The evening opened with A Classical Ballet, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1. This is a nice enough piece, but to be more than filler, it needs dancers who are “on.” Pablo Javier Perez was all there, pairing an energetic Jan Burkhard, and Margaret Severin-Hansen and Gabor Kapin were their usual buoyant selves, but the rest of the company left this viewer bored and restless.

The big closer, Symposium, is a splendid piece of choreography—fortunately, I’d seen it three times before, for I would not have known that from the version seen on the 15th. Sokvannara Sar was utterly wrong in the Dionysos role, so from the beginning the performance was mushy, lacking the sinewy, seductive enticement to dangerous pleasure that ought to inform this choreography and keep it aligned with the musical quality of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade. Jan Burkhard and Nikolai Smirnov stood out, but the duets generally were not quite there, either, even the beautiful “Fourth Speech” dance about love, created for and danced by Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov. One of the worst things about getting old is that you have to become so careful about everything, and that caution drains the glamour from Podcasy’s dance magic.

Few ballerinas manage such long careers; fewer still return to dance after a hip replacement. Podcasy’s commitment and achievements are impressive. But I’ll prefer to remember her as the dancer she was when she came to Raleigh, with her burning aura and ferocious attack, her fearless leaps and perfect landings. I’ll also be wondering what the Carolina Ballet will look like when a new lead ballerina can once again set the stage on fire.

For a somewhat different take (on a different performance) of the program by my esteemed friend and critic Roy C. Dicks, see his review.

Good ‘n’ Greasy at Motorco Music Hall with The Bad Plus

Duke Performances banners adorn the Motorco stage.

Duke Performances just keeps on bringing it. Amazing music all the time–and now, everywhere you turn. After a “normal” season opener in Nelson Music Room, and a hot gospel concert at Hayti, DP launched its mission to put jazz in appropriately-sized clubs in downtown Durham. This autumn of our content began September 21, with a smoking set by The Bad Plus in the Showroom at Motorco Music Hall, at the corner of funky and cool–Riggsbee and Geer–where street players roam and food trucks congregate. And, those Bad boys will be back tonight.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Reynolds Theater at Duke, where The Bad Plus nearly set the roof on fire with their re-working of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 2011. Reynolds is my second home. But there’s no doubt that a club stage, and a small audience (maybe 300) were better for this set of madly wonderful tunes, mostly from the band’s new album, Made Possible (official release next week; available at the show). Being so close to the musicians is thrilling–you get to see their facial expressions, and catch the tiny wordless communications among them that make this one of the tightest trios imaginable. The occasional ring of a beer bottle rolling on the concrete floor, the murmurs of drink orders in the back, the small ruffles of movement as drinkers came and went, just added to the textures of the music.

Hard to say, ever, what comes first, when music suddenly begins. Sometimes a melody from Ethan Iverson on the piano. There is always melody in these songs, and sometimes it is breath-catchingly beautiful. It may come and go, separate and modulate, interrupt itself for rhythmic bursts, but the sense of continuous melody underlying all imbues the listener with a kind of peacefulness, and a willingness to go with the whole of the giant adventuring sound wherever it will.

All three men write the music they play, and watching them, one quickly gets a sense of whose song is whose–the attitudes are different, even though the playing is united. The set opened with bassist Reid Anderson’s big sound “pound for pound,” moved into drummer Dave King’s “wolf out,” with its symphony of escalating rhythms, and on to Iverson’s exquisite “sing for a silver dollar,” a bundle of spangled shimmers over velvet bass, with an appearance by E.T. on the drum kit.

The Bad Plus, appearing at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall 9/21 and 9/22. L-R: Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums. Photo courtesy of Duke Performances.

And so it went, from one honest, heartfelt, smart piece of music to the next. These guys have known each other a long time–they first met and played together in junior high school, outside Minneapolis, and formed this band twelve years ago. Together they seem to have incredible freedom to innovate, creating very sophisticated music with a stunning combination of force and delicacy. Maybe delicacy is not quite the word–there is nothing wispy, and even the tiniest sounds have firmness. At any rate, they get more delicious texture and color and range of sound out of three instruments than seems possible (those multiple microphones do help), and they do it with disarming humor and nice-guyness and sharp synchronicity. And, they can stop on a dime.

The Bad Plus’ drum kit reflected in one of Duke’s Steinways, onstage at Motorco, 9/21/12.

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