in: Reviews

August 20, 2018

Skride, Ballet, BSO: Dancing to Bernstein

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Baiba Skride (Hilary Scott photo)

The BSO’s dance card was full on Saturday evening’s salute to Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra teamed up with Boston Ballet — the two organizations’ first collaboration ever — for Fancy Free, the 1944 ballet that launched the choreographic career of Jerome Robbins and sparked the 1945 musical On the Town. And the rest of the bill also had a dance pulse. Divertimento for Orchestra, which Bernstein wrote for the BSO’s centenary in 1980, is a suite of dances that include waltz, mazurka, samba, and turkey trot. And Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion is the score Christopher Wheeldon used for Corybantic Ecstasies, a work he created for Boston Ballet in 1999. (Wheeldon has recently created a second piece, Corybantic Games, to the same score for the Royal Ballet.)

But Fancy Free was the anchor Saturday night. The ballet begins with three sailors on leave in New York during World War II. They enter a bar, have a round of drinks, and play odds-or-evens to see who will pay, with two of them conspiring to make sure the more naive third is odd man out. Back out on the sidewalk, chewing gum, they see a girl stroll by; they try to impress her, and when that doesn’t work, two of them run after her, leaving the naive guy behind. His luck is in when a second girl passes the bar; he invites her in for a drink and they dance a steamy duet. Then his comrades return with the first girl. The problem is obvious: three guys, two girls. The girls’ solution is a dance-off, each sailor soloing in turn, to a galop, then a waltz, and finally a danzón. When that doesn’t settle the issue, a fight breaks out and the frightened girls bolt. Left on their own, the sailors order another round of drinks (same guy gets stuck with the check). They’ve had it with women — until a third girl strolls by and they take off after her.

I was curious to see how the BSO would stage this ballet, and make it visible to the audience, in the Koussevitzky Shed. The bar set — the one Boston Ballet used in its 2012 production of Robbins’s work — occupied  downstage right, with the orchestra compressed onto the rest of the stage. The performance was identical to what Boston Ballet did at the Opera House in 2012, except that it too was compressed. And seeing it was problematic. I had a fine view from the audience-left seat the BSO provided me, but those who were sitting audience right weren’t so fortunate.

What we saw and heard was a little cautious. Perhaps that was unavoidable. An orchestra playing Fancy Free has to get two things right: the sound and the swagger. Under music director Andris Nelsons, the BSO got the first right but not the second. After a brief prologue (Billie Holiday singing a snatch of “Big Stuff”), the orchestra burst in as the first sailor, Patric Palkens (in the role Robbins created for himself), cartwheeled out. The sound was brash, even jazzy, but the tempo was too slow to be electric. And the dancing looked inhibited. I don’t know whether the dancers were following a too earnest Nelsons or whether he had to be too earnest because they didn’t have the space to be uninhibited. Perhaps a little of both. In any case, what has to tightrope between ballet and Broadway tilted toward ballet.

It was still a fabulous advertisement for the Ballet, and for Fancy Free, which the Ballet will be presenting as part of its “Genius at Play” salute to Robbins starting September 6th at the Opera House. Three of the six dancers — Kathleen Breen Combes, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba — reprised the roles they took in 2012, and now, as then, Breen Combes as the second girl made the best impression, alive to every moment and in a constant flux of emotion. She warmed to the naive sailor (Craig) very gradually during their duet and showed a soft spot for him thereafter even while keeping her options open. Akiba, reprising his role as the short, cocky sailor who does the first solo, the galop, had a good sense of his character and looked great doing that split jump off the bar counter. Craig as the naive sailor who has the waltz solo, María Álvarez as the first girl, and Matthew Slattery as the bartender will likely be more effusive on a full stage, and Patric Palkens, in the Robbins role, more swivel-hipped in his rumba solo. Coming on late as the third girl, Dawn Atkins was supposed to be a blonde bombshell, but she looked dowdy in her blue dress. Atkins is a blonde bombshell; the problem was the dress.     

Divertimento for Orchestra is written in eight sections: I: “Sennets and Tuckets; II: “Waltz”; III: “Mazurka”; IV: “Samba”; V: “Turkey Trot”; VI: “Sphinxes”: VII: “Blues”; VIII: “In Memoriam/March: ‘The BSO Forever.’ ” Throughout, Bernstein riffs on the notes B and C, which stand  for “Boston Centennial”; the work is also full of allusions, quotations, and in-jokes. Sennets and tuckets (thought by some to derive from “sonatas” and “toccatas”) are stage directions in Shakespeare denoting trumpet flourishes or fanfares that would accompany the entrance of an important character — in this case the BSO itself. The sad, sweet “Waltz,” in 7/8, glosses the 5/4 waltz of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. The somber, Satie-like “Mazurka,” for double reeds and harps, quotes — for no apparent reason, which may be why it’s so hilarious — the oboe cadenza from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The “Samba” is oddly unseductive; the “Turkey Trot” alternately struts and limps. The “Sphinxes,” brief (just 11 measures) and enigmatic, allude to the “Sphinxes” from Schumann’s Carnaval while intimating a 12-tone row. The slow “Blues” calls for shifting time signatures (from 12/8 and 9/8 to 3/4) and “spontaneous interventions” from the percussion. Finally we have a trio of flutes in canon paying tribute to departed BSO members, and a march, “The BSO Forever,” that recollects the themes of the previous movements while suggesting, in its title, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever and, in its rhythm, Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March. The piece ends in a cacophony redolent of Charles Ives depicting a Fourth of July parade down Main Street in Danbury.

Here too, Nelsons’s reading was faithful to the score but not as raucous as it might have been. The wood block in “Turkey Trot” could have been more prominent; the muted brass in “Blues” could certainly have been sleazier. Nelsons did keep the momentum going in “The BSO Forever,” and the Ives sensibility from clotting.  

Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion has always had a bit of an identity problem. Bernstein claimed that he originally called the piece Symposium, and that he was “dissuaded from that title because people said it sounded so academic. I now regret that. I wish I had retained the title so people would know what it is based on.”

Bernstein had in fact been reading Plato’s Symposium on his honeymoon in Mexico in 1951. Set at a banquet, Plato’s short dialogue concerns the nature of love, with each of the seven guests — Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates, and Alcibiades — speaking in praise of the god Eros. Each guest replies to the previous one, and as the remarks he wrote for the piece make clear, Bernstein took pains to preserve that feature of the dialogue in the five movements of his score, which follows the order of speakers apart from switching Aristophanes and Eryximachus. Much of the musical material of “Aristophanes,” the composer pointed out, derives from the grace-note section of “Phaedrus; Pausanias,” and then “Eryximachus” draws from the lower strings’ canon in “Aristophanes,” and so on.

Form aside, Serenade could hardly be expected to convey the matter of the Symposium. Plato’s line-up includes a lawyer, a physician, a comic playwright, a tragic poet, a general, and a philosopher. The dialogue encompasses questions like whether love promotes virtue, whether love between a man and a young boy is mutually beneficial, whether love is a god or a spirit. None of this registers in the music, any more than Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, really tells the story of W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem. The love the Symposium discusses is almost exclusively homosexual; that may have been an attraction for Bernstein, newly married or not. And if some considered Symposium an “academic” title, it’s still sexier than Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion.

Isaac Akiba (aloft) and members of the Boston Ballet (Hillary Scott photo)

But even as a treatise on love, the piece seems sketchy. It works better without a program, as a five-movement violin concerto. The opening “Lento — Allegro” begins with a rocking figure for the solo violin, wandering uneasily, in the opening measures, from 7/8 to 3/4 to 5/8 to 3/8. The movement never settles into a consistent time signature (that’s also true of the rest of the piece), but the orchestra makes it into the kind of dance that might have appeared in Mahler’s 11th Symphony. The “Allegretto,” which Bernstein likened to a bedtime story, hints at the moment in Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète where the Muses put Apollo to sleep, but there are bad dreams as well. The “Presto” is a scherzo-fugato Q&A between soloist and orchestra that zips by in less than two minutes (pity Eryximachus); for the “Adagio” fourth movement, the orchestra takes up the rocking figure with which the soloist began, over which the soloist keens in what might almost be an improvisation. The finale — “Molto tenuto — Allegro motto vivace” — is fraught, the mood that of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, before quieting into a dialogue between soloist and cello that makes some sense in the Symposium program (where Socrates invokes the priestess Diotima: she’s the violin, he’s the cello), less so otherwise. Eventually the soloist achieves a resolution, and that’s the signal for a party to break out. Bernstein imagined this moment as the arrival of Alcibiades and his drunken cronies, and he apologized for “any hint of jazz in the celebration.” There’s not that much hinting of jazz; what I hear sounds more like a lumbering bear dance.

Nelsons and his soloist, Baiba Skride, both hail from Riga in Latvia, and they were alike in perhaps showing Bernstein too much respect. I admired Skride for her compact phrasing and her sense of Serenade’s architecture, but her astringent tone didn’t always rise above the orchestra, and there were times I wished that she and Nelsons had let loose a bit more. The heart of the piece is that “Adagio” fourth movement, and here soloist and conductor were at their best, slow and searching, heartfelt in Bernstein’s enigmatic expression of love.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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