An Urbanity Dance-Emmanuel Music collaboration brought “This Love Unbound” to Arts at the Armory in Somerville last Saturday and Sunday. Short recent works by John Harbison and Caroline Shaw broke up the multi-disciplinary exploration of three works by Benjamin Britten.
Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings began with Clark Matthews solo horn calls evoking a countryside idyll. Matthews brought bucolic and rich tones despite being challenged with an exposed part at the extremes of the horns range. Throughout the piece, the orchestra, horn, and tenor William Hite struck an impressive balance. The dancers wisely took on a minimal role in this piece, so as not to distract too much from the extraordinary score. Dancers, Haley Day, Izzi King, Olivia Link, and Miranda Lawson waited until the elegy to depict reserved passages of searching, departing, and rejoining.
Matthews excelled in Elegy, along with Hite, and the orchestra. Repeatedly, Matthews held a ghostly and controlled concert F5, the maximum of the standard horn range, before cascading down a semitone onto an E5 above a nontraditional harmonic progression. Matthews had one instance of slightly cracking the held E5 at the end, but otherwise impressed with his virtuosic control of the horn.
In Dirge, Hite’s resolute tone came to the forefront, producing an especially tight balance with the basses and cellos. On the line “From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,” Matthews confidently joined the texture, proudly declaring, alongside Hite’s voice, a particularly impressionable moment.
Despite his having already played chop-busting long tones in the elegy, Matthews’ horn rose to the challenge of the Hymn’s fiendishly difficult horn line. Matthews glided with no effort, giving the appearance of frenzied rapidity while being completely in control.
The Serenade ended as it began, with the solo horn, now placed off-stage. Matthews, giving no indication of the demands the piece had placed on him, provided an undaunted book-end to the song cycle.
In John Harbison’s Air from Violin Alone, Heidi Braun-Hill accompanied solo dancer Olivia Link. The reduction in musical information placed the spotlight on the dance. Link danced with rebounding movements, her impulses bouncing to their ends and retreating inward to search and catch air. The choreography impressively captured the character of the violin, matching the cadences and the tone. The three minutes concluded on an unresolved dominant, ending Link’s solo.
Britten and the orchestra then returned with the dramatic work, Phaedra, with Krista River featured as mezzo-soprano. Phaedra is a chamber cantata for mezzo-soprano and orchestra that tells of the title character’s love with her son-in-law, Hippolytus. The work began with dancers Day, King, and Lawson lying on the floor before being awoken by the darting strings. As with Serenade, the dancers clearly did not want to detract from the lyrics and music, and as such would sit back down and resume stillness whenever River sang. Cellist David Russell proved the highlight of Phaedra with his sonorous tone that complimented River’s singing and blended well with the excellent harpsichordist Michael Beattie.
Rivers did well to hold back much of the drama until the climax near the end of the piece in the Adagio on, “Theseus, I stand before you.” Doing so allowed this moment to have greater impact and created cohesion of phrasing throughout. The second to last line, “My eyes at last give up their light,” made for the best moment showing the performers’ abilities to hold-off on the dramatic climax until the very end.
After intermission Caroline Shaw’s Limestone & Felt for viola and cello supplied another brief interlude between the larger Britten works. Again, amidst the reduced musical texture, a solo dancer took primacy. Minimalistically balanced between arco and pizzicato, the Shaw gave another satisfying exposure to the wonderful David Russell. The dancer, closing the work in silence, further evidenced the primacy of dance in these brief vignettes.
Britten’s song cycle, Les Illuminations, which sets the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud closed the concert. Soprano Carley DeFranco joined the orchestra as the featured soloist. Above and beyond her inimitable tone, DeFranco’s control in dynamics and subtlety of phrasing stood almost above the rest of the show. She embodied emotions from a dulcet and ethereal lullaby with “je danse” at the end of song 3a. “Phrase,” to chaotic, enraged confidence on “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” at the end of song 8, “Parade.”
Interlude led to a particularly potent emotional moment where DeFranco entered on the same words as the end of the eighth song, “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.” The orchestra oscillated between a major tritone progression of an E and B flat, thereby fabricating an alternate world for DeFranco’s entrance, in which she took our breath away.
The dancers mainly moved when DeFranco did not sing. A clever change to the choreography, however, had DeFranco staged as a dancer, aware of the other dancers, and moving and gesturing dramatically to the delight of the audience.
Towards the beginning, in the moments that the dancers had primacy over DeFranco, they flocked to different spaces onstage as two pairs of two flanked shoulder to shoulder, completing their partners’ movements and carving out space made by the others’ bodies. In dancer Haley Day’s solo, she gestured to the onstage vocalist, and kept returning to her with the flourishes of strings. At the close, the dancers appeared in flowered skirts which mimicked the dress of the singer; they symmetrically directed and redirected energy, catching the bouncing movement of the strings. Amidst Rimbaud’s abstraction, the dancer’s collaboration with the text and music worked best for Les Illuminations.
Emmanuel Music and Urbanity Dance took up a challenging task, simultaneously representing poetry, music, and dance without one diminishing either. The peerless musical interpretations could have survived on their own, but the collaboration of the orchestra and Carley DeFranco resulted in an especially rousing achievement that stands among the best that this reviewer has heard this season. The dancers dazzled during the two brief non-Britten works, truly augmenting those pared-down numbers. As multidisciplinary art, the companies best realized their intentions with Les Illuminations where music, poetry, and dance blended to exceed those individual parts.
It would be hard to say too much about Ryan Turner’s sensitivity to sound and movement or about the importance of his multi-season advocacy for Benjamin Britten. Shura Baryshnikov choreographed with ears attuned to the motion in the scores and eyes intent on the poets’ and composers’ meanings.
NB: Nora Paul contributed the dance descriptions in the text and captions.
More of David Costa’s photos appear just below.
Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet.