Hot Symphonic Nights in Memorial Hall

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Conductor. Photo courtesy PSO.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Conductor. Photo courtesy PSO.

I heard and saw one of the more thrilling symphonic concerts of my decades of concert-going last night. Carolina Performing Arts is presenting an unusual two-night visit from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the multi-faceted brilliance of the first night’s playing was clearly not an aberration. Led by Manfred Honeck, the PSO played with precision, warmth and passion a varied program that concluded with a heart-poundingly gorgeous rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major. Tonight they will play a different program which will wind up with the Shostakovich 5th. If the Mahler was like riding the biggest roller coaster ever, it’s reasonable to expect that the Shostakovich will be like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Fasten your seat belts, kids.

The program on the 28th included Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina, full of the sounds of cicadas and katydids that he learned to love in his summers at the Brevard, NC, summer music festival. It was a pleasant opener, and beautifully played, but quickly forgotten when soloist Valentina Lisitsa (who made her own path to the world’s stages via her YouTube channel) strode to the piano in a silver cloud of a dress and proceeded to play the living daylights out of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If you ever get a chance to hear her, sit where you can see her face. She sings to herself, and her emotions cross her face like scudding clouds and flashes of sun. The musicianly communication between her and conductor Honeck was equally thrilling. After one particularly glorious passage, she flicked her hand at him, as if saying–top that, buddy–and I think he winked.

But the Mahler! Honeck, like Mahler, is Austrian, and began his career in Vienna. His interpretation of the music was so rich it set off a whirlwind of colors in my mind, and his command of the orchestra is such that each tone and texture had unusual clarity. The volumes and relationships of the various sections are carefully controlled: nothing is muddy; everything builds. And you could enjoy Honeck if you were stone deaf, his conducting style is so visually engrossing. Check it out tonight. I can hardly wait to see what magic signs he uses on Shostakovich.

Swag from the CPA lobby table. Don't know if I'd call him a hipster, but his 5th Symphony will blow your mind.

Swag from the CPA lobby table. Don’t know if I’d call him a hipster, but his 5th Symphony will blow your mind.


Sublime Mystery: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s “Songs of the Wanderers,” at Carolina Performing Arts

The first time I saw Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan was in the 1990s, when the American Dance Festival presented founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s Songs of the Wanderers (1994) in Page Auditorium. This visually spectacular 90-minute meditation on spiritual questing, bodily joy and suffering, stillness and transformation, is one of those rare artworks that live on in one’s soul, sending up vividly remembered sequences through the murk of consciousness as one continues one’s own journey. It is the kind of thing that you leave the theater feeling profoundly grateful to have experienced. To have had the opportunity to see it again–it was like winning the lottery. The odds were against it. But on April 2, Carolina Performing Arts gave us old-timers the big prize of a second chance, while introducing hundreds more to this beautiful dance. In addition to adding another star to CPA’s crown of achievements, the successful return of this hugely-scaled and hugely expensive performance to this area speaks clearly of the growing audience here for dance-theatre of the highest caliber. Memorial Hall sold out.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

Inspired by the life of the Buddha, and its telling in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, as well as Lin Hwai-min’s own instinctive and cultivated understanding of movement’s necessity to the body and the soul, Songs of the Wanderers takes us on the journey of Life, signified by the 3 and one-half tons of golden rice that rains onto the stage, some of it falling onto the head of a monk who remains motionless under its fall as it piles up to his knees. The dance is full of struggle and surprise, unrestrained sensuality, and reverence. Order meshes with chaos. Golden light stabs across the patterns, and carves through the velvet dark revealing groups of bodies in new actions and arrangements. The dancers of Cloud Gate are among the most controlled and sinuous in the world, and can move slowly or with explosive speed through a lyric of motion where rigid angles are made to rhyme with fluid curves, and delicate flutters embellish large actions. Here they move to chanted Georgian folk songs. Although that looks odd in print, the combination is excellent in action. Lin Hwai-min’s multiculturalism is the real thing.

After the dance culminates with a ritual involving bowls of fire, veiled women and ecstatic whirling, and the dancers have left the stage, another dancer who has come and gone through the rice with his huge long-handled rake returns to form the rice into a spiral covering the stage, as if he were grooming a golden Zen garden. As engrossing and absorbing and thrilling as the ensemble dancing is, this focused act takes you another step towards nirvana, and its resulting beauteous form releases something in the chest, some block to joy. You breathe deeply, and smell the rice, raised up in golden ridges–here for but a moment, here forever.

YouTube video from Songs of the Wanderers

My June 2003 review of Cloud Gate at ADF

My September, 2007 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My October, 2011 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My July, 2013 post on Lin Hwai-min accepting ADF’s Scripps Award, with comments on the dance that followed 

The Guardian‘s February, 2014 review of new work, RICE, performed in London

Martha Graham Company closes super-season at Carolina Performing Arts

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham's Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand, in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham herself was my introduction to modern dance, when I was so fortunate as to see her perform during her 1967 tour. So I have a special place in my  heart for the Martha Graham Company, which on April 26 and 27 closed Carolina Performing Arts’ spectacular season examining Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the centennial of that stunning music and its associated choreography and design. The company, now in its 87th season, has survived several near-death experiences and more recently, the lost of many of its costumes and sets to Hurricane Sandy, but I’m happy to report that the dancing  is still sublime.

Graham died in 1991, but her technique with all its emotional power and soulful force is very much alive. Many of her dances have been preserved or reconstructed and remain in the repertory of the company, now led by former Graham dancer Janet Eilber. The program both nights featured work from the 1940s and 1950s, including Errand, pictured above, as well as Graham’s own Rite, but the biggest thrill was Rust, a work by the great Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato commissioned by CPA for the Martha Graham Company, that had its world premiere in Memorial Hall on the 26th.

One tends to think of the women when thinking about Martha Graham dances, but Rust is set on the company’s men, and exploits both their physical power and their access to their own deep vulnerability. Set to music by Arvo Pärt (from his De Profundis), sung by the men of the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers, with additional music (strange noises, increasingly threatening) by Pedro Alcalde, Rust is deeply shocking. It’s about torture.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato's RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato’s RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Near the end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

Near the corrosive end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

The aestheticization of any kind of violence is deeply disturbing–but how else do you get people to face up to something like torture of captives? Rust was hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from. The horror, the bleak horror, the imagined terror, the pain, the blinding lights–when they turn on the audience, slowly, slowly raking across our dialted pupils, we know: This could happen to us. To me. Any time. First suffering, then ignominious death. For something or for nothing.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

The brutality of the blows on the beautiful body of Lloyd Knight (center, above photo) was only heightened by Rust immediately following the little confection of Moon (Graham, 1952), which was danced by Knight and guest artist Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet. It was fascinating to watch a ballerina dance Graham. Whelan does not at any time seem rooted to earth. She is ethereal, floating just above the ground, even while lying upon it. I don’t think this would work too well in many of Graham’s dances, but it was gorgeous to watch in Moon. It was as if the dark-skinned Knight was earth and gravity both, while Whelan was the shimmering moon, always distant but never leaving. Although CPA has not formally announced its line-up for next season, the word is that Whelan will be returning with a project of her own.

The final dance both nights was Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1984–when she was 90. Graham had danced the role of The Chosen One in a 1930 revival of Leonid Massine’s choreography, which had supplanted Nijinsky’s in the Ballets Russes’ repertoire after Nijinksy infuriated impresario Diaghilev by running off and getting married–to a woman! Massine’s work has mercifully faded into the historical background.  Graham’s version–funded by fashion designer Halston, with costumes by Halston–varies considerably from the earlier models. Graham focused on the Shaman and the Chosen One, and brought a holiness to the sacrifice that is glaringly absent in most versions before or since. Ben Schultz as the Shaman was by turns magisterial, tender, heroic, and implacable as he brought the poor girl to acceptance of her fate in a succession of amazingly visualized scenes. He captures her in his cloak; he binds her with rope; he throws her over his shoulders like a lamb being taken to the altar; he raises her on his shoulders to a celestial position; he wraps her in the endless reel of renewing earth. On the 26th , the Chosen One was danced with aching beauty by Xiaochuan Xie, who is about half the size of the towering Schultz. On the 27th, she was performed by Blakeley White-McGuire, whose vivid life-force made the sacrifice all the more poignant.

Saturday’s program also included a brighter Spring: the wonderfully buoyant Appalachian Spring, set to Aaron Copland’s music, with set designed by Isamu Noguchi.  The trio’s contribution to the war effort (oh, that last “great” war), it premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944. Perhaps Graham’s best known work, it bolsters the spirit today just as it did then. The picture says it all.

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

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