When combining the closely related disciplines of music and dance to create a unique new experience for audiences, it seems their mutual affinities would have lent themselves to a natural and organic unity. At Old South Church, Friday night’s offering by Symphony Nova and the Tony Williams Ballet showed that when things fall into place this is true, while it also revealed dangers inherent in attempting what might have seemed like an inevitable collaboration.
After all, it’s called “ballet”, right? Music has been paired with dance for centuries, probably forever, but choreographing relatively short works of distilled chamber music places special demands. With every element reduced to its essence, everything must mesh like clockwork. A compelling vision this type of collaboration did sometimes occur last night..
Full disclosure: the author did work at Symphony Nova’s former incarnation, the Neponset Valley Philharmonic, although the organization has completely remade itself since then; it now follows the more modern model of auditioning and training 10 instrumental fellows who not only play chamber and orchestral music throughout the season but also gain wide experience in the now-necessary fields of entrepreneurship, community engagement, and arts administration.
Symphony Nova’s show with the Tony Williams Ballet (best known for the Urban Nutcracker) collaborated in three works with live dancing, as well as offering three purely instrumental works. The perils of choreographing to music which was not originally intended for dance was evident in the first work, Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, K.370. The instrumental forces were in top form, Nova Fellow Anna Bradford’s confident and sensitive oboe playing interweaved with the string trio resulting in a quartet of equals rather than, as is sometimes heard, a woodwind leader of a string band. Bradford even provided a verbal program note (something a Fellow did for each piece) wherein she not only explained the piece but gave anecdotal insight, in this case how the otherwise inexplicable cadenza near the end was actually an inside joke between composer and the work’s dedicatee, Friedrich Ramm. The audience appreciated these little tidbits and also that the players addressed them directly. The dancers, a trio of ladies and one male dancer, clad in wispy outfits reminiscent of ancient Greece, effectively evoked a story through angles and use of each others’ space, although dramatic leaps or confounding contortions were nowhere to be found. Throughout the three movements, Colleen Edwards failed to capitalize on all the structural opportunities a classical work allows. Occasionally the gestures of the dancers would coincide with a major structural element in the score, but the many nuanced inflection points, repetitions, or recapitulations found no visual counterparts in the dance.
The dynamic between dancers and musicians improved in the next two balletic pieces – a string quartet performed Gershwin’s rarely heard Lullaby against a trio dancing at times a whimsical exploration, at times a gentle love triangle. This pairing worked better, with the stargazing lovers supported by the string harmonic-laden textures of Gershwin’s undulating score, but it was heartbreaking at the end when the two got out of synch, the choreography, this time by Adam Miller, ending multiple counts after the music.
The first two dance pairings hinted at a danger of using non-ballet music as the score to balletic dance. Like writing lyrics to a piece of instrumental music, the added element grabs the attention and the music can be relegated into sounding like mere accompaniment. This dynamic is different in a large hall with a corps of dancers and a full orchestra, but in a smaller space with chamber musicians mere feet from the listener, one didn’t know what to watch. That is, until the last pairing, which nailed the gestalt perfectly.
A trio of ladies in long skirts, seemingly sisters in an Appalachian town forgotten by time, playfully expressed both rivalry and affection in Gianni di Marco’s choreography set to two works by Mark O’Connor, Fisher’s Hornpipe and Caprice for Three. In this set, the action on stage fit the music both in scope and tone, and as a result the observer was able to take in both sound and image, melody and motion, as one unified experience. While the string quartet played O’Connor’s bluegrass-inspired Hornpipe quite classically, they were completely at home in the virtuosic Caprice, which saw triplets fly like confetti and each player have a chance to shine.
These collaborative works alternated with instrumental ones, leaving one wondering what kind of choreography could have been designed for Lalo Schifrin’s woodwind quintet La Nouvelle Orleans. Sounding a little like the Big Easy and more The Pink Panther dancing The Rite of Spring, this quirky and masterfully scored short showcased everyone in the ensemble, in solos as well as duets and trios, making it a kind of miniature concerto for woodwind quintet. The modern, jazzy harmonies and the shifting meters would have been amazing, although admittedly amazingly difficult, to be paired with dance.
The concert concluded with Beethoven’s little-known Serenade in D Major, Op. 25 for flute, violin, and viola. Cast in six short movements, the quirky piece may have been written in the late 1700’s but exudes that emerging Beethoven sound that so many of his early works do. A peaceful opening song is punctuated by heroic chords in the strings; an intermezzo is full of Sturm und Drang in the inimitable Beethoven way; and a central theme and variations is like a miniature work within a miniature. The opening and closing movements see the instruments both working in tandem with each other, finishing each others’ sentences, and taking turns in the limelight.
One came away from the evening having heard much great music making, and seen some inventive and effective footwork; when the two enmeshed coherently each raised the other to a higher plane, giving us a superb vision of what was possible, although this observer went away wishing this unity was realized more consistently.